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Curiosity in Leadership: The Lost Art of Questions


Photo/ of a typewriter with the words inquiry-based learning on it
Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels

Ask, don’t tell.” It’s not just a mantra oft used in leadership training programs. It has also been known to appear in organisational value statements! At it’s foundation, it is a call to embrace the transformative art of questions – a skill that can elevate conversations and enable meaningful change.

 

Despite the emphasis on inquiry, many leaders struggle when faced with the opportunity to ask a pivotal question. Many leaders admit that the reflex to provide answers, to tell or direct often overshadows the curiosity-driven power of a question.

 

Consider Socrates, the venerable father of questions, whose method of disciplined enquiry challenged scholars to critically evaluate ideas and their validity.

 

How did we stray from the path of curiosity and lost the art of questions?

 

Reflect on your own educational journey – from primary school to professional exams. The focus was on finding the right answers, making the right choices, and passing exams. This pattern continues into the workplace, where the expectation to come up with solutions, provide the right advice, and to chart the right strategic course is ever-present.

 

The casualty is our innate ability to question. Warren Berger, in his book “A More Beautiful Question”, highlights a staggering statistic: A child asks about 40,000 questions on average between the ages of two and five. That is the insatiable curiosity of a child.

 

So, what happened to this inherent skill? How did culture, organisational dynamics and fear of challenging authority suppress this instinctive art? The culture of silence or compliance, where questioning is seen as a threat or an annoyance, stifles creativity and is a barrier to growth.

 

And sometimes, when we do get questions, they can sound like catching a mistake, finding fault. Questions that intimidate or grandstand.

 

Intention matters.

What if we saw questions as a means to express interest, build trust, and foster collaborative problem-solving?


 Questions + Curiosity = Learning

 

Learning is the cornerstone of adaptability in a constantly evolving world. Deloitte's 2018 study "The Adaptable Organisation" underscores the necessity for a learning culture, stating, "The future belongs to the adaptable."

 

How, then, can leaders rekindle the lost art of asking questions?

 

  • Nurture a safe environment where questions are a required (not just permitted) form of exploration.

  • Cultivate a culture where discovery questions lead the search for answers.

  • Lead by example, using questions to inspire change and innovation.

 

Doug Eden, former President of Cargill’s global malting business, encapsulates this sentiment:

 

"Asking questions leads to meaningful dialogue, gets everyone involved, and actually provides me more credibility as a leader."

 

It is the leader’s responsibility to champion the revival of asking questions to unlock the collective wisdom that leads to innovation, growth and success.

 

The significance of questions becomes even more pronounced when navigating difficult conversations. Despite this, many leaders I coach are initially perplexed when prompted to think of the most impactful questions they could ask. The urge to provide solutions, to direct, or to exert control often overshadows the transformative power of an inquisitive approach.

 

The phrase "ask, don't tell" is much more than a slogan; it's a call to action for leaders to engage deeply with their teams through the power of inquiry.

 

What will you commit to doing that enables you and your teams to rediscover, regain and reclaim the lost art of asking questions?

 

Additional resources: What Kills Questioning – Warren Berger


 

Grace Thomas, PCC, believes that leadership team culture and effectiveness shape the entire organisational fabric. Enhancing leadership team effectiveness drives positive change and outcomes. Senior executive leaders, leadership teams and emerging leaders in complex, global, multi-national and Australian organisations work with Grace to enhance and accelerate their leadership growth and impact in their work, life and ever-evolving world.


Grace is open to genuine requests to connect on LinkedIn as we never know how and when paths cross. Allergic to sales pitches or spam!

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