Lead With Questions

One of the oldest and most enduring leadership models in business today is Situational Leadership (SL), developed by Blanchard and Hersey several decades ago. The SL model works with the stages of learning through which we all progress when we take on a new task. The four stages (these are in my own words) are:

  1. Clueless
  2. Learner
  3. Competent yet not Confident
  4. Expert

The core lesson of SL is that people at different stages of learning need their leader to treat them according to their situation, or where they are on the learning journey. Someone brand new, who is Clueless, needs a manager to explain everything and provide specific instruction. A manager who likes to direct and tell people what to do is quite effective for beginners.

Once an individual starts to learn a task, however, a good leader will gradually back off on Telling and shift to Asking questions as a primary tool for motivation. Learners need supportive questions like “What do you already understand?” or “Are you ready for the next step?” The Competent-yet-not-Confident person needs a coach who will ask, “What do you think the best answer is?” or “What do you need from me?” Finally, the Expert – who fully understands the task – needs little more than, “Can you take care of this? Thanks.”

Why are questions such a powerful tool for leading? Because people are motivated in the workplace when they have the opportunity to learn, grow and contribute. Questions allow people to be part of their own learning, to solve their own problems, and demonstrate their competence. A manager who insists on telling people what to do will destroy motivation and build an environment in which people stop caring– who needs to think if the manager Knows It All?

The best tool for leading is a good question asked at the right time. Leaders who Lead with Questions build positive workplace cultures that allow everyone to feel like they are part of the conversation and that their opinion counts.

Remember: Leadership is not about a title. Anyone can be a leader who shows up in curiosity and seeks to bring out the best in others by challenging them with Powerful Questions.



Jim Smith, PCC, is The Executive Happiness Coach®. He is an international speaker, executive and life coach, and author. He provides his clients with inspiration and practical tools to live a happier life and build more positive work cultures. He is the author of Happiness At The Speed of Life: 13 Powerful Strategies for Finding Happiness at Home and On The Job, and has touched the lives of over 10,000 people worldwide through his work on Positive Emotion and Leadership. You can connect with Jim at theexecutivehappinesscoach.com.