Questioning Leadership

Oct. 15, 2007
Knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them is key to empowering officers, building community relations, and creating a high performing department.

"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.

    Questioning Community

    First Lady Barbara Bush provides a powerful example of how a law enforcement leader could use questions in the community. When President Bush, Sr. was running for office, Mrs. Bush had to choose an issue to promote. She picked literacy. The campaign announced it, but neglected to mention that she knew very little about the subject. At a campaign stop, Mrs. Bush's hostess said, "We're so excited about your visit. We've gathered some forty-five literacy experts. They can't wait to hear what you have to say."

    After a brief introduction, Mrs. Bush asked the gathering, "If you were married to the President and you had the opportunity to really make a dent in illiteracy, what one thing would you do? How would you do it?" The First Lady knew from experience that people would rather hear themselves talk. She learned, when in doubt, keep quiet, listen, and let others talk. They'll be happy and you might learn something [Leeds, 2000].

    Want to know what to say to a community group, school, business, service organization, or the media? Want what you say to begin building bridges, trust, and connections and solve problems. Ask them,

    "If you were me, and you had the chance to really make a difference in crime/our drug problem/gangs/child abuse/graffiti/underage drinking, etc., what would you do? How would you do it?"

    Other questions for then or later might include:
  • How would you describe the current reality?
  • What should our goals be?
  • What are the pros and cons of that approach?
  • Are there other options?
  • Who would need to be involved?
  • What would be their roles?
  • What resources are available?
  • Are there resources we haven't thought of?
  • What can we expect to happen if we do that?
  • What can we expect to happen if we do nothing?
  • Not Every Question is Created Equal

    To empower yourself and others, you must ask the right questions in the right way. Otherwise, questions can be forcefully disempowering. Compare the effect of the following questions:
  • Didn't you finish that assignment? vs. What problems did you have finishing that assignment?
  • I've told you that before, haven't I? vs. What could I have done differently to help you understand the situation?
  • Why don't people want to work anymore? vs. Why don't people want to work here?
  • How do I lead if people don't want to follow? vs. Why don't people want to follow how I lead?
  • Why didn't you tell me? vs. What could I have done to have you come to me earlier?
  • Can I help you? vs. How can I help you?
  • Why me? vs. What is the lesson here for me?
  • How you ask a question can be as important as what you ask. The most common problem with any question is the spirit in which it's asked. Pay attention to your tone. You'll get immediate feedback--the nonverbal reaction of the person you're asking--that will help you monitor yourself so you can ask questions in a positive, non-judgmental way. Your body language and tone of voice is what convinces people and gets them to open up. People can tell when you're really not interested. Show interest with eye contact and by leaning in towards. Keep your limbs open and relaxed. Keep your voice sincere.

    Be Prepared

    If this is new leadership behavior on your part, people may be skeptical or puzzled. They may fear the consequences of an honest answer. Be patient. Wait and people will almost always answer

    Asking questions and listening takes time. It's much more efficient to give orders. But that doesn't inspire or bring out the best in people. It doesn't empower them to achieve their highest potential. Don't ask questions unless you're willing to commit the time.

    Be prepared for answers you don't want to hear. You must not get defensive, hostile or arrogant. Your job is to truly listen and thank the person for their view [Clarke-Epstein, 2002].

    Help Others Become Questioning Leaders

    "Questions differentiate a superior doctor from an average one, in that an average doctor will ask a question and not listen to the answer. A superior doctor will ask questions and listen to the answers. An exceptional doctor will create an environment where the patient asks their own questions and answers them.
    --[Leeds (2000) quoting John Strauss, MD, p. 162]

    The same can be said of leaders. Be a questioning leader. Help take law enforcement into a brave, new world. If you've used questions in your leadership, write me. If I get enough responses, I'll share them here in another article.

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