Using Questions to Become a Great Leader

Written By Randy Hall  |  Leader, Team Building 

Use Questions to Become a Great Leader

Some days, we just try to survive. Some days, especially in a leadership role we just hope their aren’t too many mistakes and that things go relatively smoothly so we can get things done, keep the lights on and get through the day. We are not really focused on what our best looks like, we are more just hoping that things are not at their worst.

On our best days though, we show up excited about the chance to develop an incredible team, help people grow and learn and improve, and have conversations with others that can support them as they accomplish their goals. Some days, leadership feels different.

So what’s the difference in these two extremes; showing up trying to survive what comes at us and showing up excited about the chance to make a difference for the team and the organization? And how do some leaders seem to consistently be in this calm prepared place that allows them to lead at a higher level?

What I have noticed in consistently great leaders is that they have a different mindset because they have repetitively practiced the thoughts that will help them lead at their best. And, the most effective way to help anyone, even ourselves, consider a new mindset or thought pattern is by asking questions. So, it might be helpful to illustrate this mindset by using a set of questions that great leaders often consider. In fact, I have known some leaders that write these kinds of questions down and answer them, in writing, each day before work. It’s impossible not to improve as a leader with a routine like that. Give these questions a try and see if they open up some possibilities for you. 

What does my team need from me today?

Answering this question immediately shifts us from a “me” centered approach to a one focused on “them” as we think about our role in supporting the team. It opens us up to creative ideas and solutions that will make help the team improve, grow and engage. I have often seen managers who think more about what they need from their team than what their team needs from them. They will even start sentences with “I need you.” Such as “I need you to pay more attention to detail” or “I need you to show up on time.” Those might be improvements, but really it’s the customers, the teammates and the business who need those things. What a manager often means when they use the word “need” that way is “my life would be easier if you would do things differently.” That might be true, but leadership is often executed at its worst if it is based on creating the easiest life for the leader. A great team will absolutely make a leader’s life easier, but focusing on that as an outcome will ensure that we don’t actually build that strong team we were hoping for. 

What does each member of my team aspire to, or care about?

Every bit of human progress, motivation, or growth is generated by the want for something different. We as humans actually flood our brains with a different set of neurotransmitters that generate excitement, energy, and motivation when we consider a new possibility that we care about. It might be learning something new, becoming a more respected teammate, achieving something we haven’t yet, or making a bigger difference. It could be anything, but if we do not know what someone cares about we have no ability to lead them. Our job as leaders is to help people accomplish more than they could without us. But, the reality is that they will only consistently move toward things they actually care about achieving or having.

We like to think sometimes as leaders that because we have authority, they have to care about what we want them to care about. And we often threaten, preach, or otherwise use our authority to try and cause that to happen. Our reality as leaders though, is that people only move toward things they think are better for themselves in any sort of a consistent way, and telling them what we think they should do and then using authority to herd them in that direction is simply a recipe for creating a disengaged, mediocre, unhappy team. Those kinds of teams never deliver great results. 

How can I have more conversations with my team that are not driven by their mistakes or shortcomings?

If we are in a management role it sometimes feels that the only time we talk to people is when they have done something wrong. Imagine how that might feel for you or any human.

When I work with organizations and ask about the balance of support and correction, team members often feel that they only get “coached” by a manager when they have made a mistake or displeased the manager in some way. Getting interacted with by management only when we are considered a problem is one of the most disengaging things that anyone can experience. As leaders though, we have to consider that we have trained ourselves, and are evolutionarily wired, to notice mistakes, problems, and issues far more frequently than we will see effort, engagement, or development. We can only notice these things if we schedule regular conversations with our team members that are based on the calendar, not their performance in that moment, and also train ourselves to catch people doing things right. Demotivating our team by only noticing their errors is a recipe for certain failure. And helping our team pursue excellence is not about a more aggressive lack of failure anyway. Supporting people as they become their best involves far more than just a focus on eliminating their mistakes. 

Questions help us consider possibilities, create insight in ourselves and others, and chart a new course. Using questions to explore our possibilities as a leader who can take our team to new heights can be the catalyst for our own motivation for changes that we want to make. Use questions, these or others that might think of, to decide what kind of leader you want to be for your organization. And then explore all the possibilities in front of you as you continue that journey.  

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