Many leaders think that the answers they give (or the statements they make) are the most important thing they contribute to a conversation. I think they’re wrong and here’s why.

Some time ago, I was in a conference room loaded with experienced, talented people trying to plan the future of an important project for a household-name company.  The members of the planning team had literally flown in from around the world.  Collectively, they represented centuries of combined experience.

We got into the planning conversation and a disturbing trend began to emerge.  The group’s ultimate leader (let’s call her “Judy”) was not in the room. But people kept asking each other, “What will Judy want? What would Judy think of that idea? Do you think Judy will approve of that?

Eventually, I wanted to just adjourn the meeting and convene a cozy planning session with Judy.  It would have saved everyone a lot of time and money.

I don’t know Judy personally, but it’s possible she has fallen into a familiar pattern (perhaps it’s familiar because I fall into it too sometimes!).  When people meet with senior leaders, everyone can fall into roles.  The underlings ask questions (or at best offer tentative ideas).  The senior leader makes statements, renders opinions, points out errors.  The “play” is set up to make the “Judy’s” look brilliant.  Everyone else? Not so much…

The only problem is that, as vividly illustrated by our meeting, Judy can’t be everywhere at once…

How much better if our people learn to think critically and creatively for themselves? Then we can be out of the room and still count on good things coming out of the room.

How to get there? Perhaps the leader’s greatest tool is a the art of the question.  What would happen if we shifted our thinking from, “What answer can I give?” to “What question can I ask that will help these talented people to think better – and to believe that they’re brilliant?

I dare you – share the best question you’ve been asked by a leader in the last month.  I’ll bet we could come up with a set of killer questions – which I promise to share back in a future post.