Stop Asking Stupid Questions
Questions focused on the present are management questions. “What’s the problem?” for example. Leaders, on the other hand, ask questions about the future, “Where do we want to be next year?”
Managers ask about execution. Leaders ask about direction.
In today’s complex world, leaders manage and managers lead. Determine which moment you’re in. Is this a management moment or a leadership moment?
It’s stupid to ask about the present when it’s time to focus on the future.
Ask about the present when:
- Deadlines are pressing.
- People are stuck.
- Progress is slow.
- Frustration is high.
- Projects are high profile.
Ask about the future when:
- Purpose isn’t clear.
- Focus is lost.
- Direction is ambiguous.
Asking about the future is harder because it feels less urgent. Additionally, it’s harder to check something off your list when asking about purpose.
Developing a leader is both a present and future focused activity. The danger is pressing issues may obscure long-term objectives. Deal with the present but always ask, “Are you getting where you want to go?”
The assumption is someone knows the ultimate goal. Better yet, someone is keeping the ultimate goal in mind. That’s what leaders do.
It’s easy to go in circles and feel like you’re getting something done. If you can’t describe the ultimate goal you’re chasing your tail. The three stages of leadership develop are:
- Develop yourself.
- Develop others.
- Develop others who develop others.
You’re end up going in circles if you leave out the second and third points. You’re stuck when you forget the future. Leaders always bring people back to the future.
What are examples of useful management questions?
What are examples of forward facing leadership questions?
Great post as always, Dan. I am fascinated with ‘possibility’ questions that leaders and managers ask of themselves and of their staff. Here are a few suggestions I have:
For managers: ‘What inappropriate patterns are emerging among the staff that we need to discuss and nip in the bud?’
For leaders: ‘ What do I need to know before …..?’ or ‘How will we make those changes with the least adverse effect and in a way that aligns with the mission and vision?’
I’m with you, I’m fascinated by questions. Love your expression, “possibility questions.”
I prefer great questions to great statements.
On a day the CIPD posted a press release here in the UK about employees deepening lack of trust in their managers [and some leaders I guess], I think a ‘What can I do for you?’ type question might be appropriate?
On the other hand, I love the ‘Why’, What Next’, and ‘Where To’ questions that, like Cinnie, align people’s thinking with vision and purpose!
Great post as always Dan – thank you!
John, it would be interesting to know what causes the distrust and what would gain trust. I think your question is a good start, but it seems there must be either a lot of unethical, self-centered leaders out there, or maybe just a lot of mis-aligned perceptions about goals. That suggests making time for deeper questions like “What do you understand our goals to be?” or even, “What do you think we should be trying to do?’ could be helpful.
In the for-profit world, a critical leader question is always, “What are we likely to be asked to do down the road?” That leads to “What skills do I need to add to be able to do that?” and “What skills do I need to train into my team?” Then you ask, “What new opportunities are there for us once we have those kinds of skills?”
You make a great point, Dan: You don’t need a leader if you’re happy where you are. Maintaining the status quo is manager work.
I think being people people, it’s easy for us to forget that the purpose of our organization isn’t really to make life good and fulfilling for our team members. We’re funded for a reason that has to do with customers and clients; the leader challenge is to make life good for customers, clients, the organization, and the people. If all we look at is our team, we get into the mindset that the wellbeing of the team is the reason for its own existence.
Great post Dan. In my reviews with staff, especially annual reviews where we set training and work goals, I always ask / share
a) Are you going where you want to be?
b) What can we do now / in the coming year to get you closer to where you want to be?
c) If you continue on this path, this is where you are headed. Do you understand this course and the destination its leading to?
I have asked these questions to myself many times, and when I am not satisfied with the answer I have changed course. Not that these course corrections don’t bring bumps / obstacles (compared to the settled, comfortable, predictable and I say mediocre state I was in before), but in the long run I seemed to have come out ahead because of these course corrections.
Have a great day!
Great post yet again Dan:
One tactic I use when developing future leaders is to leverage both management and leadership questions together. When I see new managers or leaders focus or should I say get bogged down by the demands of the present I always probe and ask “how does that align with our vision / values?” or “how does this current problem / situation impact the sustainability of what we are trying to achieve long term?” I have found if you ask folks questions that are deal with the present and leverage the leadership questions after that it actually changes how they view current situations and makes them think on both sides of current vs future needs and growth.
Very true. Forward focused questions encourage people to follow where you are going whereas present or historical questions keep them where they are.
Hi Dan, fantastic post.
I enjoy reading all your posts and I find they are influencing and providing valuable information for my Post Grad Diploma. I was wondering if you would mind if I used your quote “Managers ask about execution. Leaders ask about direction”. as part of My Post Grad Diploma Leadership Vs Management?
Hi Rob, Feel free to use the quote. Cheers, Dan
Today, managers generally talk about target, deadlines and performance. And their activities and efforts focus on addressing these things. In the process, perhaps they forget means. They forget to use means that is acceptable, reliable and sustainable. Means is the most important parameter that determines your ethical standard to achieve your results. So, when we question about means that becomes useful management question.
The example of forward facing leadership question is about direction and people. Direction decides and determines your focus: whether long term or short term. People perspective determines who are the people needed to reach and achieve those direction. There should be right alignment and match about people and purpose. Any mismatch can derail the effort. So, forward facing leadership is about aligning right people with right intention to achieve direction.
Great Article Dan. Certainly leaders ask about direction. Much appreciated.