6 simple questions great leaders ask

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Top leaders don't need to have all of the answers. Instead, what they need are a few good questions.

That's the takeaway message of an article by Eric McNulty for strategy&'s stategy+business magazine. Mr. McNulty is a director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, where he frequently writes about leadership.

Mr. McNulty said one way he often describes a "great leader" is their ability to pose meaningful "and sometimes deceptively simple" questions. The following six can help leaders learn more about themselves, their organizations and their colleagues. But Mr. McNulty has another tip: Be sure to listen to the answers and not just use questions to fill gaps in conversation.  

1. What do you think? No matter how experienced you are as a leader, asking someone what they think of a plan, initiative or idea can help foster engagement and make them feel valued.
2. Do we think, or do we know? This shows you expect people to test their assumptions and make decisions based on evidence, not hunches.

3. How are you doing? This is a straightforward question "intended to get right to the heart of emotional and operational challenges at hand," wrote Mr. McNulty. It conveys genuine interest and can prompt some introspection. "If you accept 'fine' as an answer, you've missed the point," he said.

4. How am I doing? Former New York Mayor Ed Koch commonly asked people on the subway or the street how he was doing to get direct feedback on his performance. This is an especially effective question for naturally introverted leaders, as is "Tell me more about that."

5. What does this mean over the long run? It's easy for organizations to fixate on short-term results, and this intense focus can impair the ability to create long-term value. "By asking about a longer time horizon, you can encourage someone to contemplate issues and unintended consequences that could result from trying only to satisfy one group of limited horizon investors," wrote Mr. McNulty. "This question injects a needed pause to help ensure that quarterly returns are in service to, not in conflict with, the quest for sustainable value creation."

6. How can I be helpful? In an interview, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said he never felt compelled to control the operational decisions made in wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, largely because he trusted those in charge at the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Massachusetts State Police and the Boston Police Department, along with other agencies. "Instead, hew as able to probe to see how best he could support their efforts," wrote Mr. McNulty. "He had the self-confidence to focus on the desired outcome, not the nitty-gritty details about which others had greater expertise. It was an example of restraint not often seen in politicians or CEOs."
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