The Three Leadership Questions I Always Ask

October 15, 2012

QuestionsHow do you talk with other people about leadership? Unless I’m already a trusted leadership advisor, most people don’t just come up and ask me to help them evaluate their personal and organizational leadership effectiveness. (And when they do, it’s a little more organic than that!)  It’s true the more responsibilities people acquire, the more complicated their leadership situation gets. If they become an executive, they usually have large budgets to invest in consultants or solutions to address the leadership challenges they experience. But everyday leaders often have to figure things out on their own. You may be able to help, but how do you get the conversation started?

One of the things I’ve come to learn over the years (many times the hard way) is that people are often sensitive about their leadership challenges. They won’t want to talk about it if they sense you have an agenda (even if the agenda is just to be helpful). And most of the time, it doesn’t matter how much or little you know. You have to be invited. Another thing I’ve learned is that, among other things, leadership is a conversation.

So instead of trying to solve folks’ leadership challenges for them, I’ve simply focused on taking an interest in them as a person and inviting them into a natural conversation without having an agenda. I don’t start with what I know, but with the other person’s situation, as Stephen Covey’s fifth habit “seek first to understand, then to be understood” advises.”  This way, whether or not I’m asked for my input, the other person at least knows that I care.

What I’ve included here is a list of my three favorite three leadership questions to ask, whether I’m talking to a client for the first time, to a friend or to a new acquaintance. Instead of inviting myself to solve their problems, these questions help me invite others to talk about themselves. Here they are:

What are you working on that you’re really excited about?

This is a great opening question because it engages the other person’s positive emotions. People like talking about the things that get them excited. It underscores what is really working for them. No matter how challenging things may be, if there is something to get excited about, then hope is alive and well.

What would you like to get to next when you’re able?

This is a great follow-up question because it speaks to the other person’s foresight or planning process. Do they possess a clear direction or are they just hanging in there day-to-day? Are they likely to be even more excited down the road or have more concerns?

What concerns are you experiencing right now?

This is essentially a very mild and non-intrusive question about problems they may be facing. Instead of insinuating that they may have caused a problem, this question merely inquires about a feeling they possess. Everyone possesses concerns of some kind. Once you’ve engaged their positive emotions, it’s much easier to talk about the slightly negative ones.

By the end of a short conversation based on these three questions, I have a great grasp what’s working, what the plan is, what the challenges are, and what might not be working. In other words, I know all of the important things. This puts me in a great position to offer a solution I’m confident will help, a resource I trust, or to simply ask, “how may I support you?”

Theodore Roosevelt insightfully claimed that, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Will you join me in leadership conversations that are unmistakably others-centered?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • Linda S

    This also works for leaders to ask their employees. It’s amazing how much is gained when a person senses that you care about them, not just what they can do for you.

    • Linda, you’re absolutely right! I’m always more likely to act on an idea I came up with than on one someone else gave me. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  • John

    I am working on a great Strategic Planning project for my Church. What concerns me the most is my preconceived ideas about the way things should be, instead of allowing the staff to formulate their own ideas and strategies.

    As the facilitator, I fear steering the strategic meetings we are about to have in my direction. Any ideas for a bias facilitator?

    Also, the Pastor wants to approach the strategy from a systems point of view. Three key systems we will explore include: 1) Exceptional Sunday Morning experience (all of it worship, children’s and student ministries, welcome formats, refreshments and use of technology), 2) improve use of technology (in all areas worship, connecting with others, spiritual growth etc.) and 3) Volunteers (recruiting, training organizaing, and building enthusiasm for ministry and service.)

    Thoughts are welcome.

    John

    • Wow, John, big question! I haven’t gotten to do a post on strategic planning yet, but I do know that it’s hard to “steer” this kind of facilitated conversation if you are asking open-ended questions (vs. closed or leading questions). If you invite input from everyone (even encouraging conflict/debate), there is a good chance most of the sides will be represented (including your side). I’m guessing the church asked you to fill this role because they want your influence. Perhaps your involvement will give them the confidence/security that their plans will work out. If that’s the case, you owe it to them to influence away from areas you know are not the best, but it’s always easier if they come to that realization themselves. Even asking permission to add your two cents (or to mention a concern you have) from time to time keeps them in the driver’s seat.

      That’s my two cents, thanks for making me think! Let me know how it turns out.

  • I love this. These questions can occur quite naturally and organically in a conversation, but they’re targeted well to really get to the heart of the matter. Leadership like this rarely comes with a label of leadership, but more just living out your life as a human being with others.

    • That’s so true, Loren. If I approach someone and say, “I’m a leadership coach. I’m here to help solve your leadership issues, so let’s talk about them.” If I say something like that, it’s abrasive. Being more natural and organic, like you say, makes things a lot easier for everyone.

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