MarLead 07-04-035

Leading with Questions:

How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask



Michael Marquardt

Jossey-Bass, 2005, 216 pp., ISBN 0-7879-7746-2


Michael Marquardt is an educator, consultant, and professor at George Washington University.  He is also the director of the Global Institute for Action Learning.  Powerful questions can take a leader and his team much further than top-down answers, direction, and control.  Learning to ask good questions and to make a practice of it is the subject of this book. 


Marquardt helps us become stronger leaders by learning how to question effective, listen effectively, and create a natural climate for questioning. (3)  “Good leaders…ask many questions.  Great leaders ask the great questions.” (7)


He deals with benefits, asking the right questions, developing the art of questioning, developing a questioning culture, and using questions in managing, coaching, teams, shaping strategy, and enabling change.  The book is characterized by many examples from the literature, a long list of benefits scattered throughout, a number of excellent example questions, and considerable repetition and redundancy (but I repeat myself).


Benefits of questions.  Questions

­      Wake people up.

­      Help us admit we don’t know all the answers

­      Help us become more confident communicators (2)

­      Encourage people to solve their own problems. (12)

­      Aid and encourage learning (13, 29,

­      Lead to mutually satisfying objectives, empowerment, less resistance, and a wilingness to pursue innovative change. (19)

­      Create a culture of “we.” (28)

­      Foster curiosity (31)

­      Improve decision making and problem solving (32)

­      Help find the truth more easily (32)

­      Energize people (35)

­      Build people’s confidence and self-esteem (36)

­      Move people from dependence to independence (36)

­      Help a group recognize and reorganize their collective knowledge. (37)

­      Enable leaders to develop closer relationships among people. (38)

­      Demonstrate the questioner’s empathy and care (38)

­      Encourage reflection. (40)

­      Help people develop themselves (41)

­      Create energy and vitality in a group by triggering the need to listen, to seek a common truth, to justify opinions and viewpoints (141)


“When the people around us clamor for fast answers—sometimes any answer—we need to be able to resist the impulse to provide solutions and learn instead to ask questions.” (11)


“When leaders fail to ask questions, they forgo the opportunity to test their own assumptions and prejudices….  The failure to ask questions, in other words, allows us to operate with a distorted sense of reality.” (18) 


“Leading from good to great does not mean coming up with answers and then motivating everyone to follow your messianic vision.  It means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.” (21, quoting James Collins, Good to Great, p. 75)


“Unity is forged, not forced.” (29)


“When you talk to the people closest to the problem, you can gather more relevant information, gain a better perspective, and be able to act more confidently than if you relied solely on your own resources, opinions, and perceptions.” (32)


Some of the reasons we have trouble with questions:

­      Desire to protect ourselves

­      In a rush

­      Lack questioning skills

­      The environment discourages it (51)


The Right Questions

“The questions that a leader asks send messages about the focus of the organization.  They are indeed indicators of what’s of most concern to the leader.” “Questions can be very powerful in focusing attention.”  (63) 


Questioning why a person did not succeed is disempowering.  Such questions drain energy, threaten self-esteerm, and elicit defensiveness.  “Empowering questions…get people to think and allow them to discover their own answers, thus developing self-responsibility and … ownership for the results.  They build positive attitudes and open people up to new possibilities.” (64)



­      How do you feel about the project thus far?

­      How would you describe the way you want this project to turn out?

­      What key things need to happen to achieve the objective? (65)


Great questions are generally supportive, insightful, and challenging.  (66)



­      What is a viable alternative?

­      What are the advantages and disadvantages?

­      Can you more fully describe your concerns?

­      How would you describe the current reality? (67)


“Closed quesions seek a short, specific response, like yes or no.  They are often useful at the beginning and ends of conversations.  By contrast, open-ended questions give the person or group a high degree of freedom in deciding how to respond.” (68)  They often begin with “why” and “how” or “What do you think about…” Why questions can go deeper into cause and effect. (69)  They are best used to express curiosity rather than frustration. (70)

Types of Open-Ended Questions:

­      Explorative (Have you explored…?)

­      Affective (How do you feel about…?)

­      Probing (Describe, explain, clarify…)

­      Analytical (Why has this happened?)

­      Clarifying (What specifically did you mean…?)  (71-2)


The Questioning Art

“The attitude, mindset, pace, timing, environment, and context can all affect the impact of our questions.” (77)  “In the learner mindset, the questioner seeks to be responsive to life’s circumstances.” (77)  “The judger mindset, on the other hand, is reactive.”  The judger focuses on the past to offer praise or affix blame.  The learner looks for the win-win, seeking the cause without being accusatory. (78)


“When those around us sense that we do have a learning attitude,… they will be more open and thoughtful in answering our questions.   The flow of information and ideas will open up, and problem solving, teamwork, and innovation will be enhanced.” (81)


Before asking a question, think about it from the other person’s perspective.  Phrase it in a positive way to make it the most helpful. (83)


When confronting a difficult issue, 

1)     Break the ice and get the conversation started.

2)     Set the stage by explaining what you want to talk about, including the context, background, and hopeful outcome.

3)     Ask. Remember, it is a conversation, not an interrogation. 

4)     Listen carefully. Pause and let them think.  Don’t interrupt.  Notice what isn’t said.  Reflect back what you heard.  And say thanks.

5)     Follow up. This is critical.  Digest their responses.  Let them know you heard.  (85-95)

It all boils down to being sincere in wanting to learn rather than blame. (95)


Creating a Questioning Culture

Evidences of a questioning culture:

­      People admit they don’t know.

­      People encourage questions.

­      People are helped to develop questioning skills

­      People ask empowering questions.

­      People search for answers rather than “the right answer.”  (98)


“Leaders model the way not only by asking questions but by demonstrating their willingness to learn and change.” (101)


“When you engage in dialogue, you should make sure every person’s ideas are listened to and respected by other members of the group.  Encourage participants to suspend criticism and analysis in the process of creatively exploring issues and problems.” (104)


“People don’t resist change as much as they resist being changed.  In other words, the way to get others to adopt a questioning leadership style is to ask them to do so, rather than tell them to do so.” (111)


Using Questions in Management

“Different people need different sorts of questions, depending on their personality, style of thinking, skill set, and other factors.” (116)


“So, instead of jumping in with a quick response when someone would come to me, I began responding this way: ‘Well, I am sure you have had time to think about this and have your own ideas, what have youcome up with?’  This type of question is very validating, and lets the person know that I respect their knowledge and experience.”  (119, quoting Gidget Hopf of Goodwill)


Relationship building questions:

­      How can I help you?

­      What would you do?

­      What wourld someone else (say, a competitor) do?  (119)


Questions to spur innovation and activity:

­      What is a viable alternative?

­      What are the advantages and disadvantages you see in this?

­      Can you more fully describe your concerns?

­      What are your goals?

­      What are a few options?  (122, quoting Mark Haper of ConocoPhillips)


Springboards to planning and setting objectives:

­      What do we need to accomplish?

­      Do you think this is realistic?

­      How are you planning to accomplish this objective?

­      What resources are you looking for?

­      What kind of help do you need? (124)


“If constructive feedback is needed, the best approach is to ask people what they think should be worked on.  In most situations, employees are very aware of their shortcomings.” (128)


Team Building and Questions

Questions can help the team focus on goals, reality, options, and actions. (136) 

Questions can be used to

­      Help people uncover biases and see things from a different perspective

­      Expose hidden agendas and get all the concerns on the table

­      Get everyone engaged

­      Assist in personal coaching (137, from Mark Harper)


“Meetings require conversations where people can voice their support and their doubts.  My ability to say yes is only as good as my ability to say no.”  (140)


“Commitment is the choice to act as an owner.” (140)


At the end of a session, ask

­      How well has this session gone?

­      What has the group done well?

­      What could the group do better?

­      What are we not doing that we could be doing?

­      What actions are we going to take to improve our performance? (142)


Using questions to shape strategy

“The springboard to every discovery can be understood as the right question, asked at the right time, in the right way, and to the right person(s).”  (154)



“We become what we ask about.” (171)




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