Good leadership is about asking the right questions

Being a good leader isn't about always having the answer, but knowing what to ask

In today's fast-paced world, there’s often an expectation that leaders need to have the answers at their fingertips, that’s it’s not OK to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”.

However, it’s not possible for leaders to have all the answers all the time. Additionally, we are surrounded by more information than ever, and it’s becoming harder to know which sources to trust. 

Discernment and good judgment are critical – particularly because in a complex, ambiguous and interconnected world, everything may not be what it seems. When we take something on face value, we may be missing key pieces of information or overlooking unseen options. And when leaders hold dogmatic views and are certain about their opinion, they open themselves to decision failures.

Your mindset is critical

History is littered with stories of leaders who thought they had the answers, ignored advice and consequently made poor decisions – from the failure of Kodak to AOL’s disastrous purchase of Time Warner to the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

When leaders are certain they are right, they close themselves off to other ideas and different opinions. This can lead to poor decision making due to the bias we all have in how we process information and make decisions.

Stanford academic Carol Dweck confirmed this in her research on fixed and growth mindsets. She found that people who have a fixed mindset see intelligence as static – a fixed trait. As a result, they always want to look smart and appear as though they have all the answers. They believe that success is based on talent alone, not work. This means they will avoid challenges and give up more easily. They also ignore feedback, which they see as criticism, and they often feel threatened by the success of others.

In contrast, people with a growth mindset believe intelligence can be developed through hard work and effort. Consequently, they are more eager to embrace learning, take on challenges and persist in spite of setbacks. They love learning and usually display higher resilience. They are also more willing to learn from others and receive feedback.

The art of the good question

Leaders who are comfortable with uncertainty have a growth mindset and are more willing to embrace their curiosity. They recognise that good decision-making comes from asking lots of questions, not finding the one right answer. 

This isn’t about asking a question to get the answer they want. Instead, leaders need to ask questions that:

  • clarify their understanding
  • help to seek out different ideas
  • ensure that outlier opinions and diverse views are heard
  • make sure the trade-off s from decisions are clearly articulated
  • uncover elements that may be missing from the conversation
  • ensure the discussion has examined the issue from multiple perspectives
  • challenge their own thinking process and the processes of those around them

By asking questions, leaders show they are interested in the ideas being shared and open to new information and thoughts. They are also welcoming divergent views and encouraging debate and discussion – all characteristics that are critical for successful leadership. So instead of encouraging leaders to find the answers, encourage them to ask the right questions.


Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian. She works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is also the author of Step Up: How to Build Your Infl uence at Work.