Effective Leadership Skills: Ask Better Questions!

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” 

—Richard Feynman, Nobel physicist

I never took a physics class—not in high school or college or grad school. Hell, I couldn’t spell “physics”! So it’s amusing that I’m drawing lessons from people who work in quantum mechanics, nuclear fission, or electrodynamics, because I have no clue what those are! In spite of that, Feynman was a business genius, as obviated by his quote above (I suspect he’d say of business what I said of physics).

Here’s another one.

Isidor Rabi, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics, credits his mother for helping him become a scientist. He said that when he was a child, his friends’ mothers would ask their children when returning from school, “Did you learn anything today?” Yet his mother would ask, “Did you ask a good question today?”

Interesting, isn’t it, that two men — both Nobel Prize winners who dedicated their lives to finding answers — were perhaps more focused on questions! Through hard knocks, I’ve learned that the right answer to the wrong question is always wrong for that situation. 

I’ve been enamored with questions as a leadership tool for a while. My interest piqued when I was CEO in a turnaround situation. My first few months were spent fighting fires — broken bank covenants, manufacturing problems in China and a dishonest founder, to name a few. However, one day, after the fires were down to smoldering ash, I realized I wasn’t out of answers — I was out of questions! So I had a one-on-one with myself and wrote down a few that I’d have to struggle with to be successful in that assignment. 

You only need two skills to ask great questions. First, you must develop the patience to “slow down the game” long enough to think before you shoot. “Ready, aim, aim, aim” is the technique of the uncertain and the incapable. As a CEO or executive, you must be ready to make decisions. However, ensuring that you’re asking the right question is important, and that’s the second skill. Let’s call it “framing.”

Most leaders feel as though they must have all the answers to be effective, but more important, they need to ask the right questions! 

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