“You can tell a man is clever by his answers. You can tell a man is wise by his questions.” — Naguib Mahfouz (1911- ) Egyptian novelist, Nobel Prize Laureate
Solutions to tough challenges start with powerful questions. Powerful questions have the ability to shake people out of stale ways of thinking and critically reflect on faulty assumptions. Wise leaders know this. And as a result, they don’t give people answers. Rather, they challenge them to reflect on evocative questions so that they can find the best answers on their own.
One of the greatest business strategy questions I’ve ever heard came from management consultant Ram Charan at an executive education program. He wanted the participants to focus on what mattered most in their industry. The simple yet powerful question he asked was, “How would you put your company out of business in the next 5-10 years?” With remarkable clarity, the executives were able to articulate how they could do it. They identified key vulnerabilities that weren’t being addressed. Some of the executives were shocked by the things they missed, but Ram wasn’t. He knew that they hadn’t found these answers because they hadn’t asked powerful enough questions.
1. Pick a powerful question you’d like your team to reflect on. This might be something like:
- “What 3 things will hold us back the most this year?”
- “What 3 strengths are the most important to build on this year?”
- “If we miss our goals, it will likely be because…”
2. Be willing to discuss “undiscussible” issues.
3. Realize that fostering critical reflection is one of the most important things a leader can do.