The ability to ask questions is an important marker for leaders. It differentiates great leaders from good ones because it demonstrates two key concepts: Empathy and willingness.
Not everyone in a leadership position necessarily has, or is capable of demonstrating, these qualities. Some get there via bullying, manipulation, and intimidation. This occurs not only in professional organisations but even in not-for-profit organisations supposedly espousing ideals which are admirable and attractive on paper.
I experienced this first hand earlier this year, when ‘established leaders’ at one such organisation physically shoved someone off stage, death-stared them until they stopped speaking, manipulated people behind the scenes, verbally abused others, and then said that as long as people are happy there is no need to question this behaviour. Can you say “cult”?
Despite the unpleasantness, I’m incredibly grateful for the experience as it led me to realise the importance of a relationship audit. It was useful to see what terrible leadership looks like in order to define great leadership in this article.
Let’s assume you are asked to head up a small team and lead them through a demanding and stressful project. Several weeks later, many stakeholders have either failed to deliver or are running far behind schedule. You are asked to report on the team’s performance, knowing that your assessment will have far-reaching repercussions for you and your team. You have three options:
- Point out all the faults of individual team members and the mistakes the team has made as a whole.
- Self-flagellate and apportion blame to yourself.
- Understand the problems that the team has faced and determine their causes and effects in order to find solutions in the limited amount of time you have left.
The first two options are both reactive and aggressive. The project and team is almost certain to implode and dissolve into a chaotic mess.
The third option is only possible through the difficult process of assessing and distilling facts – some of which may be uncomfortable truths. It is problem-solving of the highest order, and it comes from a place of calmness and responsiveness. It is achieved by asking difficult questions like:
- Realistically, what can be achieved in the time we have left?
- What resources will assist us in accomplishing the essential tasks?
- How can we support every member of the team in maximising their time, effort, and energy?
Once you identify the over-arching concerns, they can be split into sub-questions until they become logical, manageable, and easily-achievable chunks. When a leader demonstrates empathy, there is a near automatic switch that happens in team members’ attitudes: a willingness to do what it takes to make something work. When you have a willing team, you don’t have to convince them to do the work – they are willing to do it because you have shown that you recognise them on a human level, and that you can connect with them accordingly.
Need some practice and coaching in terms of what kinds of questions to ask yourself and / or your team? I can support!