New and aspiring leaders may think they’re supposed to have all the answers. It turns out that leaders perform better when they acknowledge what they don’t know and take time to ask good questions.
As a first-time library director I hardly expected to receive so many questions. Internally, library staff asked questions that ranged from basic operational matters (e.g., loan policies; operating hours) to more complex and potentially controversial matters (e.g., responding to faculty members who want their class to meet in the library all semester). Externally, faculty and administrators asked about the library’s direction and our vision for the future. I thought it was my job to have all the answers. To an extent, I recognized the value of engaging staff for their input on issues of all types. What I did less well was to acknowledge not having the answers. In retrospect, that led me to ask fewer questions in seeking out what those answers might be. Did it make me a less effective leader? Only if I failed to learn something important from the error of my ways.
Getting Asked Questions
Fast forward ten years. Transitioning from a library directorship to an associate director position at a research university, I thought my days of getting questions would be a thing of the past. Was I ever wrong! Our dean asked tons of questions. I learned quickly that if our meeting agenda included an item within my portfolio, I had better be ready for questions. A request for funding or service changes meant I needed to prep well and be ready with answers. At first this felt irksome, especially when it seemed, to me at least, that the answers should be obvious. However, I came to realize that leaders who ask many questions are not micromanaging. It’s a way to be transparent about needing subordinates to provide the details required for good decision making. The leadership lesson is that asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness, but simply a thoughtful process to obtain strategic information.
Make It a Style
When I learned more about toxic leaders, it reinforced that asking questions and being transparent about not knowing everything is a wise leadership practice. Toxic leaders think they know it all. In their own minds, they have no need to hear from subordinates, because a toxic leader makes decisions believing they already know more than anyone else. Toxic leaders rarely own up to their lack of knowledge. They’d rather plow ahead and risk failure, which is ultimately blamed on others, than admit a subordinate knows more than they do. In an interview for the New York Times Corner Office column, Valerie Smith, president of Swarthmore College, realized early on that as a leader she needed to “ask questions rather than just tell people what I thought at the outset.” With her subordinates, Smith is “very clear that I don’t have all the answers, and so I try to be as open as I can to other people’s ideas.” Dean Dad (Matt Reed) refers to it as a leadership style in which one “leads with questions.” It’s a style that requires lots of “what if” and “why” questions, along with the humility to admit “I hadn’t thought of that.” Asking good questions is an overlooked leadership skill that needs more attention.
While I’m not able to generalize to all leadership development programs, those I attended paid too little attention to the craft of developing good questions. If anything, more time was spent on convincing us we had the capacity to get the information and make the decisions. More time should be devoted to learning the art of developing and asking questions. Not just for the sake of being a question asker—employees can sense when leaders are asking shallow questions just to go through the motion of acting inquisitive. That makes it more like a painful inquisition. Formulating and asking good questions is a skill that requires development and practice. Like any skill, improving and gaining confidence means making mistakes and learning from the experience.
Where to Start
In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Jennifer Meuller, a University of San Diego business researcher, makes a connection between leaders who ask questions and workplace creativity. She says “leaders don’t have to know the answer if they know the process of how to get the answer. If they’re curious. If they start asking questions. If they just kind of let the air in a little bit to say, ‘You know, we don’t need to always know.’ ” She suggests that asking questions should be considered an essential skill as it contributes to a leadership mindset that is associated with creative change in organizations. That strikes me as a good rationale for why library leaders need to sharpen their questioning tactics.
Want to build your question asking skills? Take a look at Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question. It offers advice on how to frame questions so they are openings to information gathering rather than an inauthentic attempt at feigning interest—or worse, leading questions asked only to confirm what the leader already believes. I am reminded of something David Kelley, designer and cofounder of IDEO, says in the “Shopping Cart” project episode on Nightline from 1999. “Is the boss always going to have the best ideas? Not likely.” If the boss fails to ask good questions, it’s almost assured they won’t.