Is the time right to “Lead with Questions?’

Is the time right to “Lead with Questions?’

This is a great time in India to reflect on the changing nature of leadership and its impact on the country. We live in an exciting and challenging time of rapid and unprecedented change, in which change is the only constant. The pace of change is so rapid that it is overwhelming the ability of many leaders and organisations to cope with it.

It is apparent that organisation success or failure in this turbulent world will depend on how well leaders can lead their organisations and people into the future.

This is clearly illustrated in the unfolding Indian political scenario. Who would have thought that the Aam Aadmi party would decimate the Congress Party in Delhi. Kejriwal and the party’s leadership is acknowledged as one of the key factors in Aam Aadmi’s success (and possible demise after the recent Delhi mass protest). On the flip side Congress’ poor leadership seems to be taking blame for their resounding defeat.

The same is true for business organisations. The considerable success of companies like Naukri.com, Chrys Capital, Genesis Luxury, Intex Technologies is not that surprising if one considers the immense leadership capability of people like Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Ashish Dhavan,  Sanjay Kapoor and Narendra Bansal.

We have little influence the nature or pace changes in India. What we can directly control is how we respond to change. Forward looking leaders are therefore understandably asking ‘How can I improve my leadership capability and achieve success in a turbulent world?’

This is an excellent question and a world of experience, research and conventional wisdom offers some great insights.

The first insight is that we have to redefine what real leadership is all about.

Leadership is no longer about command, control, status and power. Traditionally leaders were expected to be decisive, bold, charismatic and visionary. We believed that the role of a leader is to have all the answers.

We believed that they have to rapidly solve all the problems and that everyone expected them to have all the right solutions.

This leadership paradigm was originally born out of the industrial revolution, an era of hierarchical organisation structures and relative stability. Change is now happening so fast that stability is a thing of the past.

The new reality is a state of almost constant chaos. In this chaotic and turbulent world, it is impossible for any leader to have all the answers.

Many situations we face are unique and without precedent. This means the power of prediction, so often the reliable source of answers in the past, is lost. So how can leaders possibly have all the answers?

To know all the answers in a chaotic world is not only an absurd concept but one fraught with danger.  

Back to the political scenario. At the risk of over-simplification, it appears that Congress still subscribes to this outdated leadership philosophy and are paying dearly for it. These outdated leadership practices no doubt also contribute to the hopeless inefficiency of many the government bureaucracies.

What is 21st century leadership about?  

Peter Drucker, the grandfather of leadership thinking said ‘The leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask’  As Prof Mike Marquardt says ‘Leadership is not about knowing all the answers. It’s about knowing what great questions to ask and carefully listening to the answers.’

Leadership is about asking great questions that solve problems, inspire, motivate and empower people and the organisation.

Leadership is about providing service to staff, to customers and the community. It is about demonstrating integrity and humility. It is about winning hearts and minds.

Back to the political scene for a moment. Is one of the reasons for Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi party’s success not they seem to be asking their electorates a lot of good questions to win their support? I certainly don’t hear Congress leaders asking too many questions – it all seems top-down

Why is questioning so powerful?  

When we ask people questions we respectfully and courteously force them to think. To engage their minds in providing important information, in investigating new ideas, in solving important problems and in many other areas.

Asking questions gives people the opportunity to shine, to demonstrate their capability, it gives them a voice.

Leadership is about influencing people and asking the right questions is the most powerful way of winning support, commitment and motivation.

Michael Dell of Dell computers says’ Asking lots of questions opens new doors to new ideas, which ultimately contributes to your competitive edge … That’s why you must encourage the free flow of information at all levels’.

Asking questions creates an organisation culture of questioning and inquiry, in which questions are welcomed, assumptions are challenged, and new ways to solve problems are explored.

So what are the benefits of a questioning culture?

Common sense and extensive research by Prof Mike Marquardt and others demonstrates conclusively that at organisation level a questioning culture; improves decision making and problem, motivates and empowers employees, builds stronger teams, enhances innovation and promotes acceptance of change. At individual level a questioning culture enhances self-confidence & adaptability, improves listening and communication, develops leadership skills and promotes learning.
So the ’ll repeat my first question – is 2014 not the right time for us to start leading with questions?

Other insights of what we can we do to enhance our leadership capability will follow in subsequent blogs.

About the author

Ron McLuckie - Ron is Chairman & Chief Executive of WIAL India which he established in March 2012 and serves on the global board of the World Institute for Action Learning. He is a highly experienced international consultant and Action Learning authority. Ron has held senior executive roles in major organizations, senior lectureships and led a number of international consulting companies. His special interest is in developing skilled leaders who can drive business success and bridge the ‘knowing/doing gap’. His passion is challenging the conventional development approaches that do not work and finding effective ways of developing people and organization capability. He is also a proud granddad of three grandsons.

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