Lead by Telling or Lead by Questioning by Jim Johnson

We’ve all had “that boss” who would dictate directions from afar.  We would be fearful of taking any action on most anything for fear that we were heading in a direction that they would not like.  So, we sat on our hands waiting for our orders.

Leading by telling is not an effective or efficient way to get things done.

One of the things I’ve tried to get better at is to lead by questioning.  This leadership tactic has required me to roll up my sleeves and spend time with my team leaders.  I’ve worked hard to build trusting relationships with them so they aren’t afraid to disagree with me, challenge me or question me.  I’ve had to make it safe to do this with me – the “ownness” is on me.

Just the other day, I sat down with one of my first-year leaders to talk about some results I needed to see improved.  I had been using a report that, I thought, demonstrated the need for improvement in a sales area.  I asked her a lot of questions about the performance of her team and how she managed them in this particular area.   She began questioning where this report came from, who showed it to me, and was it the same report that the lending department actually used.  Since someone in lending gave me the report, I had assumed (oops) that the report was valid.  It was not.  I was able to find the right report and we both got on the same page right away.   But I only learned this when this leader questioned me on it.  We then created a better tracking mechanism that she can use with her team to predict their performance by month’s end.  It was a very good use of our time.

In this interaction, there were a lot of questions and clarifications being used – and this was healthy.  We got to the heart of the matter.  I worked hard not to simply tell this manager to “fix it”, but we talked through the issue and found the resolution that we both needed.

In her post “If You’re Always Giving Order, You’re Not a Great Leader”, Jessica Stillman shares the following:

“Think about a leader and chances are your first image is of someone giving orders — maybe it’s the quarterback in a huddle outlining the next play for his teammates, maybe it’s an army officer coolly  barking commands in the heat of combat. But chances are, when many of us think of leadership, we picture a person telling others what to do.

After all, that’s the essence of leadership, right?

Wrong, says Christine Comaford, an executive coach and author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together who recently participated in a series of interviews on the website of fellow author Keith Ferrazzi. In the course of a long exchange about leadership, she tells the story of an executive she was coaching who couldn’t stop telling his employees how to do day-to-day things.”

She goes on to say that when a leader asks more questions vs. telling the employee what to do, good things happen:

  • The employee learns that they do have responsibilities (and the abilities) to get things done on their own.
  • The leader cannot create an environment where the staff will not act unless they get permission.  Nothing will get done this way.
  • The leader and the employee will both learn more with this method.

“The great leaders are like the best conductors –

they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.” –Blaine Lee

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