Here’s a quote from Bonnie Hatcock of Humana, HR Executive magazine’s 2007 HR Executive of the Year:
“As we mature as leaders, I think we all realize that it’s no longer about the answers.
It’s about the questions – asking those well-placed, well-timed questions that help other people discover solutions.”
In other words, effective leaders need to be coaches.
There’s a lot of truth to that.
We tend to think of leaders as inspirational figures who draw people along to a shared vision. That’s certainly an important attribute of leadership, but it can also connote a ‘follow the leader’ mentality. Followers may take action more because the leader they admire (or fear) says so, or is pushing and pulling them to do so, rather than because they deeply understand and accept the rationale. In that case, as soon as the situation changes, or a leader moves on, it’s likely that the shared vision is lost.
Transformative leadership comes from listening to your people, equipping them, and asking the sorts of questions that lead them to deeper awareness and understanding of that vision. You can see this at its most basic level when teaching a subordinate a new task. If you tell him exactly how to do it, he is well equipped, but only to follow instructions. He may or may not think to question why he is doing things in a certain way, and will likely understand the instructions much better than the process and the meaning of the task.
On the other hand, if you embark on a little coaching with her, providing key instructions but also asking questions and giving her the space to explore and uncover other elements on her own or with your guidance, she will understand the meaning of the task at a much deeper level, and may even surprise you with some of the insights she finds.
I remember when I first started as an actuarial student in the 70’s, was handed a worksheet and asked to check the calculations. Instead of telling me everything about the task, I was left first to review all of the specifics laid out on the worksheet. As I checked the work, I also began to examine why the calculations were being done a certain way, where the assumptions might have come from, and how the results might be used. I began to formulate my own questions about the worksheet and calculations, and then when I came back with the checked work, I engaged my superior in a discussion about it. It turned out that was exactly what she had expected.
That became the basis of expectations I communicated thereafter to every employee who worked for me. I didn’t ever want them to simply do something a certain way just because I had said to do it that way. I wanted them to make sure that they understood exactly why that made sense, and to question anything that didn’t. That consistently uncovered better ways to do things, as well as a more engaged, motivated and thinking staff.
My challenge to you is to give serious thought to your own leadership style, and how often you ask good questions rather than simply telling people how things ought to be. Honestly rate yourself on how often you:
- listen rather than speak,
- ask rather than tell, and
- brainstorm deeply with an open mind, allowing your subordinate to share their thinking before you jump in with your own approach.
Now see what you can do to increase your scores in all 3 areas. You may be surprised at how it changes others’ perception of your leadership.