One of my favorite axioms of leadership is this:
“Assuming responsibility means making a choice.”
In other words, you can’t tell people to do something and expect them to assume responsibility for it. You need to pose a series of questions to truly get people to assume responsibility.
When John F. Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” he was asking a powerful question. He was honoring the fact that people have the freedom to choose. His question was the ultimate question: “What could you do for your country?” His question was heartfelt, and it contained no preordained answer. But he was doing what all great leaders do: he was asking powerful questions.
Ask Powerful Questions
To help people change, you need to ask powerful questions. Not your opinions or advice masquerading as questions, but powerful, open-ended questions that evoke genuine reflection. Asking powerful questions is not natural. It is not something we are trained to do. Our culture teaches us to express ourselves, to speak our opinions, to say what we feel, without stopping to ask powerful questions. Yet the fact is, the art of catalyzing change boils down to asking questions, listening carefully, and engaging people in deep reflection. It means asking enough of the right kinds of questions and listening with enough care so that people say: “I see now what I need to do. It’s my responsibility to make this better.”
People are naturally prone to thinking that everything they’re doing is okay (it’s everyone else who is screwing up!). Reflect for a moment on what this implies. If real change entails asking people powerful questions, how can you create the forums in which people can be self-reflective? How do you create the conditions for real listening to occur? How do you start asking powerful questions?
10 Practices That Create High-Performing Organizations
For each of the ten practices in my book, The Leadership Equation, there are powerful questions you can ask. To help you get started, here are the ones that can have the most impact:
- Align the Core Values
- What would happen if everyone in our company shared a deep understanding of our company’s core values—and lived up to those core values every day?
- What if everyone participated regularly in discussing the meaning of our core values and how to better translate them into practice?
- What specifically might that do to improve our effectiveness as an organization? What conflicts might it resolve?
- Sharpen the Focus
- What would happen if our entire organization were united around a common vision?
- What would happen if we truly focused on achieving a few major priorities?
- What would that do for our performance? What conflicts would it resolve?
- Lead Through Others
- What if we focused on getting the right people into the right roles each and every time?
- What would happen if we had a consistent approach to teamwork—and what it means to be both a team leader and a team member?
- What if we had operating principles that helped people identify and address conflicts quickly?
- What if trust were pervasive and fear was unknown in our company? What would we have to do to achieve that kind of culture?
- Manage Decisions Well
- What would it be like if everyone in our company understood what decision-making authority was delegated to them?
- What if everyone in the company felt empowered to suggest ideas and suggest change?
- How would it be if we were crystal clear about how we were making a given decision?
- What would it be like if our board and our CEO were clear on their respective authorities?
- Start With Yourself
- What if every manager and leader in our company demonstrated humor and humility?
- What if everyone consistently behaved honorably and with heartfelt passion for what they do?
- What if everyone communicated with an affirming intention and acute awareness of different styles of communication? How would that change our culture?
- Accelerate the Pace of Change
- What would happen if we had performance metrics tied to every major business product and service we offer?
- What if the information related to those metrics was shared immediately with people at the front lines?
- What if we empowered people to suggest ideas for improvement—and accepted their ideas nine times out of ten?
- What if we embraced continuous improvement as part of our day-to-day work? How would that affect our performance?
- Stimulate Creative Flow
- What would happen if we tapped into people’s creativity more often?
- What if we were more aware of the things that each person most enjoys doing?
- What would happen if people were free to collaborate across departments?
- What would happen if we created incentives for people to experiment and try things without anyone looking over their shoulders or prematurely judging them?
- Spread Systems Thinking
- How do we create value in our organization?
- What would happen if everyone in our organization understood those systems?
- What if everyone thought more about our business as a system and appreciated the full consequences of their decisions?
- What if everyone heard from their customers more frequently (both internal and external customers)? How might that affect our company’s performance?
- Multiply the Communication
- What would happen if we had ten times the amount of communication up, down, and across our organization?
- What would it be like if information flowed quickly from those who have it to those who need it?
- What would happen if we communicated more regularly with our customers and other outside stakeholders? How would that affect our performance?
- Ask Powerful Questions
- What would it be like if everyone in the company assumed responsibility for asking powerful questions?
- What would happen if everyone then asked what it would take to make that happen, and how we would measure success?
- What would we have to do differently? How could we build that kind of culture?
Effective leaders use powerful questions to engage people and get them to assume responsibility for new ways of thinking, acting, and behaving. When a leader asks powerful questions and listens attentively, powerful ideas emerge. When everyone regularly engages in this kind of powerful questioning, the result is the highest levels of trust and spark across the organization.