Asking the Right Questions—A Catalyst for Great Leadership

The most important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

–Albert Einstein

Asking the right questions at the right time is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. Questions don’t necessarily have to come from a titled leader, but can—and should—come from people all over an organization, at every level. The more we ask questions, the more we understand the problem we are trying to solve—and the more likely our solutions are the right solutions.

What are the right questions? There are all sorts of sites throughout the internet and books written about what the right questions are. I don’t believe that there is any set of specific questions that will propel a company, team or individual to solve the right problems, but simply that we need to be in the mindset of continuously asking questions.

I recall reading a story of a large foundation that invested millions of dollars into purifying water within a region of Africa as a means to combat disease.  They built a huge purification system that flowed into hundreds of taps.  No one came.   No movement in the prevalence of disease resulting from drinking dirty water.  Why?  Because they failed to ask enough questions. They failed to understand that the actual issue to be solved was as much about access to water as it was purity.  They failed to understand what communities had to go through to actually gain access to the purified water, how far they had to travel, and how challenging it was for families.

If you’ve tried to solve a problem with every solution you can think of, your challenge isn’t finding a better solution. It’s finding a better more precise problem.  And the only way to find a more precise problem is to ask questions.   If you are caught in a problem that seems unsolvable, ask this simple question: If the problem you’re trying to solve weren’t the problem, what else might be?  Critical thinking is rarely about having the right answer and most often about asking the right questions—questions that tip the issue upside down and look at it from many different lenses. There’s an additional advantage to redefining your problem: it frees you to experiment with “beginner’s mind”—a term that  refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.  When you apply the idea of a beginners mind, you get to start over, think differently about areas where you believe you have  knowledge.  I have learned that often what we know can get in the way of being curious.

Questions allow us to move past the lens of “I know” to the lens of what don’t I know.   What there is to discover is most always more important than what we already know.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. What are some questions you might ask to get to the next problem?


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