Leadership and The Art of the Question

I was asked to coach an individual who had recently completed his master’s degree and had been in a development position for high potential leaders in his company for about two years.   He was becoming a bit frustrated, because he believed he was ready to lead an operating unit of the organization which the position was preparing him for.  However, from the perspective of the company leadership, he was far from ready for the promotion.  While he knew more than most about the technical side of the business, and was filled with all sorts of ideas for improving operations, they knew he would have been a disaster to the organization, would alienate people who would see him as arrogant and condescending, and would ultimately fail and leave the organization, probably involuntarily.  Their hope was that executive coaching would help him address his interpersonal challenges and learn to lead in a new way. 

I made it clear to the organization that they would have to help him understand that his job was on the line and that termination was likely to be his only option if these changes were not made.  After they made these things clear he and I entered a year long coaching engagement.  Though the message was difficult for him to hear, it was evident that he wanted to stay the course and turn things around.  It became apparent that no one before these leaders (including his parents) had taken the time to confront him about his arrogance (which was a blind spot to him), or cared enough to invest in efforts to help him change. 

The first “aha” came when I told him that the people he would be charged with leading had been in the organization for many years and had seen lots of leaders, just like him, come and go.  Some they loved and some they hated.  Many they tolerated, but spewed out as quickly as possible (which organizations frequently do).  Only a few got results.  I helped him understand that , while, the goal was not so much to be loved as it was to get results, I also helped him understand that his future depended greatly on getting results that would last beyond him, and that this could only come when he helped the people he led to begin to think differently about their work. 

The turnaround in his leadership style came when he began to understand the value of asking good questions, and the art of doing so effectively.  He learned that it is much easier to have good ideas and simply announce them to people and have them implement them (positional authority), than it is to help them discover the ideas for themselves and change their behavior because they believe in the change rather than because “the boss said so” (personal authority).  Through the coaching process he learned to ask questions in a way that was truly inquisitive rather than condescending.  He learned to ask questions that would get people to think about their business as they never had before.  He learned to give them the responsibility and accountability for presenting good ideas, and to ask questions that help shape their thinking rather than criticize an idea that had not yet taken everything he knew into account.    In the midst of it all he learned that helping people discover their competency and capability was more energizing for him and for the people he led.  He also heard a lot of people say that “No one ever taught me as much as you have.”  To which he responded, “I was simply asking questions. You were the one who had the answers all along.” 

Today, he is having a blast leading in his organization in a new way, one that blends the value of respecting others with the belief that capable people can achieve far more than they dreamed possible, when they have the right kind of leadership. 

On a side note, let me be sure to clarify that I understand the value of positional authority, but as an old friend of mine use to tell his managers, “Everyone knows you have a badge and a gun.  Don’t show them unless you are ready to use them.  And that should be rarely.” 

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