Leaders today need to revisit an overlooked skill: asking questions. In my 40 years as an executive and advisor in Silicon Valley, I’ve often seen leaders assume that people look to them for answers — bold assertions that build people’s confidence in their competence. But in reality, that kind of approach erodes trust, especially at a time when so much is manifestly uncertain. You think you have the answers to all important questions? That suggests that you are either clueless — you have no idea how rapidly the world is changing — or that you are lying. In either case, you won’t find that trust that you’ve been looking for.
Instead, leaders should ask powerful and inspiring questions, convey that they don’t have the answers, and solicit others’ help to find them. The leaders I talk to tend to be nervous about this approach: Won’t it look like they don’t know what they’re doing? On the contrary, however, research has shown that expressing vulnerability and asking for help is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return. In fact, if you can learn to ask questions well, it can help you connect with others. Thinking together can put you on the path to solving intractable problems and sparking innovative thinking.
Ask Big Questions
To be clear: I’m not saying you should ask pointed questions that put others on the spot, like “How can you deliver 10% higher productivity?” or “Are you missing anything here?” The kind of questions leaders need to ask are those that invite people to come together to explore major new opportunities that your organization hasn’t identified yet. Here are some examples: