"Questioning Leadership" is a double entendre--a phrase with more than one meaning. When you first read "questioning leadership," did you think of subordinates questioning their leaders? Whether that's a good thing, and in what context, is a subject for another article. The meaning for this article is leading with questions.
For the Truly Brave
Asking questions takes courage. First, questions are proof you don't know everything. Admitting this can be scary. But questions are good things because they get you answers. And answers can be very handy. This leads to another reason questions can be frightening. You may not like the answers you get. Trust me--the answer you know is less dangerous than the answer you don't know.
The right questions, asked the right way, can get quick results and long-term success. They can produce participation and teamwork, spark outside-the-box thinking, empower officers and staff, build relations with the community, solve problems, and more.
The Power of Questioning Leadership
Would you like to:
- Retain your officers and staff?
- Be the most prepared department in the country?
- Promote your people at 2 ½ times the national average?
- Reduce disciplinary actions by over 80%?
- Reduce medical limited duty assignments by over 90%
- All while operating under budget?
Commander D. Michael Abrashoff did this and more in less than 20 months with one of the most modern warships of the U.S. Navy. How? By continually asking questions, listening, and then acting on what he heard. He began his command of the USS Benfold with individual interviews with each of his 300 staff during which he asked:
- What do you like best about this ship?
- What do you like least?
- What would you change if you could?
Then he acted quickly on the ideas that came from these questions . If he didn't get the results he expected, he asked himself three questions:
- Did I clearly articulate the goal I was trying to achieve?
- Did I give people the time and resources they needed to succeed?
- Did I give them enough training to get the job done properly?
More often than not, Abrashoff concluded he was part of the problem and took corrective action.
The Commander also questioned every rule. When an officer or sailor asked for his approval or signature on something, he asked, "Why do we do it this way? If the answer was "Because it's always been done this way," he'd ask them if there was a better way. Before long, when his people came to him, they had thought through and would explain up front why they did things that way, or, they'd say, "We've thought of a better way to get this accomplished." [Marquardt, 2005, citing Abrashoff, 2002]
What were the results of Abrashoff's questioning leadership? Under his 20-month command:
- The ship operated at 75% of its budget, returning $1.4 million to the nation's treasury.
- Only 54% of sailors re-enlist after their 2nd duty tour. 100% of the Benfold's career sailors re-upped. This retention saved the Navy an estimated $1.6 million.
- The ship's combat readiness indicators were the highest in the history of the Pacific Fleet.
- His people were promoted at 2 ½ times the Navy average.
- The Benfold crew completed the normal 52-day predeployment training cycle in 19 days.
- During a one-year period under the previous command, there were 28 disciplinary actions for which 23 sailors were discharged. During Abrashoff's 20-month tenure, there were five such cases and no discharges.
- Under his predecessor, 31 people were detached from the ship for limited duty, mostly with complaints of bad backs. Only two crew members left Abrashoff's command for health reasons [Crowley, 2004].
Questions get police leaders the information they need to empower recruits, officers and staff and turn their department into a high achieving organization. Questions create "buy in." They get people to persuade themselves. People believe what they say, not what you say.