Leading through questions

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BY: Edward Kwapong (Dr)

It is trite knowledge that a leader must set the direction, get his team aligned and then motivate them to deliver in keeping with set targets and strategic objectives.

This is in tune with the Post-Second World War style of command and control in management.

In that context, the leader is expected to tell his followers what to do and to request accountability from them at every step of the journey.

The leader is presumed to be all-knowing and literally infallible.

The organisational structure is, therefore, like a pyramid, with the leader sitting at the peak and issuing commands.

Subordinates return to ask for directions, guidance and confirmation of what to do in order to attain the expected results.

This management philosophy continued deep into the 20th Century until the ground-breaking concept of leading by questioning, rather than leading by telling, was propounded by Michael Marquart in the 1980s.

Effective leaders

One thing that many a manager would have observed, time and again, is that the most effective leaders don’t worry about having all of the answers themselves.

Instead, they are masters of asking questions in the face of today’s rapidly shifting marketplace where issues are complicated and nearly impossible for any one person to have all of the data, knowledge and experience needed to generate the best strategies.

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In the circumstance, the leaders surround themselves with those who have knowledge, expertise or points of view that they may not have.

They understand that the leadership role is less about being a subject matter expert and more about the ability to access data that shapes decision-making.

The leader who leads by asking questions from his team has the advantage of benefiting from the richness of many minds.

After all, it is said that two heads are better than one. Again, at all times, there has always been comfort and strength in numbers.

Secondly, an idea from a subordinate that shapes a decision, once accepted, is easier to buy into and co-owned.

An answer to the leader’s question generates acceptability and co-ownership right from the inception and the subordinate is likely to tell others that he was a party to the solution.

This approach also creates the opportunity to develop leadership talent in others.

Questions have the power to prompt reflection on the part of the respondent.

Furthermore, this approach gets people to focus on the potential for positive change, rather than on a negative reality.

This is especially needed today when uncertainty and bad news plague even the best companies.

For example, a question like “How would you want to see this company 10 years from now?” will agitate a subordinate’s mind towards innovation that will redeem and drive a struggling company into success.

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Again, by asking questions, the leader is able to drive to the heart of an issue.

He may ask questions that filter the critical information from the noise and that help connect the dots.

The genesis of this concept is demonstrated in the Bible, where Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say I am?” Leading by asking questions, therefore, serves to reinforce the point of view and conviction of the leader.

It is perhaps in this regard that Mahatma Gandhi once said: “There they go.

I must follow them, for I am their leader”.

What this means is that once a while, the leader must be able to operate from an inverted pyramid, where he stays at the bottom and the followers stay at the top, thereby enabling him to ask questions even as they go ahead of him.

 

Model

In this regard, a model for leading by questioning called the Quality Cycle has been developed and used in the past by corporate bodies and even governments.

A quality circle or quality control circle is a group of workers who do the same or similar work and who meet regularly to identify, analyse and solve work-related problems.

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Normally, a quality circle is small in size and usually led by a supervisor or manager and presents its solutions to management.

Upon assessment, workers implement the solutions themselves in order to improve the performance of the organisation.

At the close of the last century and the beginning of this century when Ashanti Goldfields was facing challenges emanating from the fall of gold price on the world market, management did not resort to consultants.

Instead, Sir Sam Jonah set up a quality circle of 18 people, made up of junior, middle level and senior staff across several functions to design strategies for redeeming the company from imminent collapse.

At the end of the exercise, several solutions were proffered by the team which led to initiatives such as restriction to surface mining, trackless mining, maintenance of limited stock levels of spares and downsizing of staff numbers.

The recommendations from the Quality Cycle served to reinforce some of the views held by management.

The foregoing process provided home-grown solutions at virtually no cost to the company.

Consultants, yes, but their solutions are often left on the shelves to gather dust for lack of ownership.

The writer is the President and Fellow of the Institute of Human Resource Management Practitioners (IHRMP, Gh)

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