How to Avoid Dangerous Questions and Become a Real Leader
Look for leaders with forward-facing curiosity.
“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.” Peter Drucker
The right questions:
- Confront wrong thinking. Search for root causes, not just symptoms.
- Explore commitments. On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you?
- Begin with what or how.
- Move from the big picture to the small.
A truly dangerous question:
Why aren’t we achieving our goals?
Smart people become dimwits when leaders ask why-questions. They don’t know the answer. If they did, they’d be doing it. It’s not likely they have enough information to answer such a broad ambiguous question.
People’s minds shift toward blame when managers ask why something isn’t working.
Use ‘why questions’ when exploring purpose or broken processes. Other than that, begin questions with what and how.
- What is the goal?
- Why does this goal matter?
- How would you know if you reached your goal?
- If someone saw you working to achieve this goal, what would they see you doing? (Get to behaviors or nothing will happen.)
A question at the leadership table:
What are the people around this table doing to ensure that we reach this goal?
The answer to the question isn’t, “We’re sitting in this room having a meeting.” Real work happens before and after meetings, not in them.
Leaders who avoid responsibility blame others for their own incompetence.
Modeling behaviors that achieve goals is the difference between leadership and blabbership. Anyone can proclaim, “Our goal is a 10% increase in sales.” What must “I” do is the first step toward real leadership.
Focus on behaviors, not ambiguous numbers.
What are some useful leadership questions?
“Commitment” determining who is and who isn’t?
Conveying we need 100% “commitment” from all parties involved to reach the goal.
“Establish the goal”, and present the goal so everyone knows what they are committed too.
Thanks Tim. Getting clear on who is committed is essential to success. Don’t expect the uncommitted to help you reach your goal.
Also, If a team member isn’t committed to the goal, don’t seek their advice on how to reach the goal.
What can we do that never been done before?
What possibilities do you see that would transform our business?
What opportunities do you see to increase revenues and/or cut costs?
What is one thing we should stop doing?
Thanks Paul. Great questions. You reminded me of the question that I’m using where I lead. “How can we take this to the next level?”
How does this change impact how we should be doing business?
What is holding you back?
What do we need to remove or get out of your way?
What steps should we take to achieve our goals?
Thanks Dawn. Great questions. It takes courage to ask these questions.
The goal focused approach of “what is not working right now?” paired with “what can we try to increase our success?” is less threatening than “why is this not working?” It keeps the attention on the solution. Those who keep returning to the “why” seem to quickly move to the “who” and are often problem-centered.
Thanks cb…. I hadn’t thought about the problem of threat. You opened a path of consideration I hadn’t considered.
Excellent points Dan. Over the course of my career, rarely have I heard or read a leader’s goal that was anything but hyperbole. Almost every goal I have seen has essentially no connectivity on a personal level to an employee. I remember when at DuPont, the VP of Safety, Health and Environment borrowed a slogan from a plant employee regarding our safety goal. The slogan read “Zero is the Goal.” The slogan implies zero injuries, right? But, think about it, I have yet to meet someone who goes to work with the intent of injuring themselves. I’m sure there are such people, I just have never met one, thank goodness. Until leadership can articulate their goals that have direct relevance on a personal level with employees, employees will simply yawn and go about doing their job.
Jim – Your insight raises for me the topics of relevance and connectivity. Aside form many “yawn merchants” I have been fortunate to see some real leaders inspiring others – and when they do they seem to get their audience (targets?) recognising the benefits of reaching for the goal. Trick – I guess – is for leaders to recognise what energises others and communicate goals or direction in a way the audience feels will take them to a better place. I also think that direction or a signal about the road to take is more important than defined goals – because direction provides impetus and begets action towards a shared vision of a better place (whereas a goal can seem distant and difficult to jointly articulate and focus upon).
I agree Gary, my main point with respect to any leader is their ability to personalize the goal in such a fashion that everyone in the room can relate to their contribution to achieving the goal. I too have seen some leaders truly inspire. Possibly one of the best is General Welsh’s speech to the US Air Force Academy. It is 50 minutes long, but well worth the watch. Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFBpxB5zgnY These Academy Cadets had a good appreciation for their goal once they graduated after hearing General Welsh. This is what I mean by “personalizing” the goal at the target audience level.
Is that the leader that should avoid being asked dangerous questions or the leader should avoid asking dangerous questions? Surely ‘a leader’ should be able to ask or receive any question. I know through one of your other blogs, we have touched on the ‘why’ questions. If it were ascertained that in asking a ‘why’question a person was not looking to apportion blame, only being inquisitive, trying to dig down further, who would or should fear a ‘why’ question the most – a leader or a non-leader?
One thing I realized upon reading this post, it is and will never be easy to be a leader. It comes with responsibilities and in a way or another, you really need to know what is right from what is not. It’s challenging definitely, but your posts are a great guide.
If we could start the project over again, what should we do to make a difference?
How can we manage the lifeline and get-it-done with?