Why all leaders should ask more questions

The value of inquiry or powerful questioning is well established and becoming even more relevant given today’s hyper-competitive, fast changing and complex business environment.

Advantages include:

  • Inviting people to input diverse perspectives and ideas

However, studies show that leaders still use far more advocacy — putting forward arguments as a means of persuasion, rather than engaging in inquiry. This behaviour is frequently reinforced by top leadership and the culture of the organization which encourages ‘push’ or ‘tell’ approaches to getting things done over active listening, exploration and questioning. Leaders also fall into the “trap or illusion of expertise”. This happens when they feel they possess superior expertise and should have all the answers by virtue of their position and/or experience.

Leading management author and business psychologist, Edgar Schein, who wrote a book entitled “Humble Inquiry” defines inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”. This definition underscores the importance of drawing out others’ ideas and perspectives and asking open-ended questions to help tackle business challenges and create a learning, growth mindset.

In my coaching and leadership development work over several decades, I have observed many leaders make huge strides in the way they lead and influence others through focusing more time and effort on inquiry rather than advocacy in meetings, performance conversations, strategy off-sites and other interpersonal situations.

Asking powerful questions is natural to all of us, it’s something young children discover early on to facilitate learning and growth. However, adults (including leaders) often lose this skill when they move beyond childhood. The good news is that it can be re-learned if practiced consciously and regularly.

Part of the art of inquiry is building up your own arsenal of powerful questions. In doing so, the following principles are important to remember:

  1. Keep your question clear and straightforward. Avoid double-barrelled, long-winded and indirect questions.

Because many leaders struggle to know where to start when making the shift to more inquiry, I have provided below powerful questions you can ask across a variety of situations:

Planning a new strategy

  1. What is our purpose?


  1. Who owns this problem?

Onboarding a new hire

  1. What is already working well that you can build on?

Performance conversations

  1. What have you done particularly well?

Overcoming conflict

  1. What outcome are you looking for in order to resolve this? What’s most important for you?

Leading change

  1. What else do you need to know about why we are changing?

Managing your career (and those of others)

  1. What roles and tasks energize you most?

Becoming a stronger leader (building self-awareness)

  1. How do you measure your impact as a leader? Is this in line with how others measure it?

The art of inquiry is at the heart of effective leadership. It enables leaders to unlock the ideas, perspectives and talents of those they are seeking to lead. Inquiry also helps leaders connect with people and build strong relationships of trust, candour and openness. This surfaces diverse opinions and input from those closest to the problems and potential solutions. By staying curious and tapping into different perspectives, leaders can also explore creative options and adapt quicker to changing circumstances. So, if you want to be a great rather than a mediocre leader, start asking more questions today.

Recommended Reading:

Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. San Francisco: BK Publishers Inc.

About the Author

James Brook
Leadership Consultant | Executive Coach | Business Psychologist

James has over 25 years’ experience working with leaders and organizations internationally to optimize their performance, talent and future success. He has worked with leaders from diverse sectors, countries and cultures. Clients have included Commvault, Equinor, Gilead Sciences, GSK, PhotoBox, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Novo Nordisk, Oracle, Sainsbury’s, Swiss Re, Tesco, Yahoo! and WSP.

James has set-up and successfully grown several of his own businesses, including Strengthscope®, a global strengths assessment and consulting business. As Joint Founder and MD, he grew Strengthscope® into a market leader before selling his stake in the business in 2018.

James is a regular speaker on leadership, coaching, assessing and developing talent and the future of work. He has contributed a wide range of publications in these areas. His most recent book, Optimize Your Strengths, explores how leaders can transform their organizations by inspiring people to shine and deliver exceptional results.

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We develop positive leaders and thriving workplaces to deliver breakthrough performance, innovation and sustainable growth. www.plexusleadership.com