Most of you will recall the character Curious George from your youth. Curious George is a monkey and the star of a children’s book series and TV series. The first book was published in 1941, Curious George’s adventures capture the curiosity and inquisitiveness that we encourage in our children. George learns by doing. He is adventurous and likes to experiment and try new things.
You may ask, what does this have to do with leadership? I believe that we begin to develop our leadership capabilities as young children. The book Curious George became a best seller for generations because it taught children to be curious. Curiosity is a valuable leadership trait. Children tend to ask tons of questions. Why is the sky blue, where do babies come from, why do we have seasons, etc. We encourage our youth to ask lots of questions. It is this thirst for knowledge that we want to build in our children. At some point in adolescences something changes. Our kids stop asking so many questions and become teenage “know it alls.” Some outgrow the know it all phase while others carry that quality into adulthood.
“Know it alls” make the worst leaders.
That thirst for knowledge that we develop as children is a key to leadership success. Those that lead best are lifelong learners. That quest for knowledge opens unique opportunities and allows individuals to live very full lives. Especially important is self knowledge or self awareness.
There is a company based in Washington, DC named SocialTables. The company makes event planning software. One of their core values is “Everyday is a school day”. I love this core value. What it conveys is that the company seeks to be a learning organization and they encourage their employees to learn new things each and everyday.
As a business leader this thirst for knowledge and curiosity can take several forms but it is usually best explored through asking questions.
Several years ago I had the unique opportunity to sit down with the former CEO of one of the worlds most prestigious investment banks. During our conversation, I asked about his role as CEO and his leadership style. His answer surprised me. He saw his number one responsibility being to ask questions. Rather than seeing the top leadership role as being the person to provide the answers, he saw his responsibility as asking the right questions. Too many leaders today think that leadership is about having the right answer and showing how smart you are, when in fact leadership is about bringing out the best in others.
Rather than seeing the top leadership role as being the person to provide the answers, he saw his responsibility as asking the right questions.
If we can learn to be better at asking the right questions at the right time, our ability to influence decisions and create collaborative environments improves. Having answers is important, but just as important is asking the right questions. There is an old tale that provides a great example of asking the right questions.
A man is walking down the street and comes upon another man who is walking a dog. The man without the dog is a dog lover and decides he wants to pet the dog. Being polite and knowing not to pet a dog without asking first, he approaches the dog walker and asks two questions. One: Can I pet your dog? Two: Does your dog bite. The reply is yes you can and no my dog does not bite. With that the man goes to pet the dog. As he lowers his hand the dog snaps at him biting his hand. In shock the man turns to the dog walker angrily and says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” To which the dog walker exclaims “Its not my dog.”
You see asking the right question in the right context is extremely important. This lesson carries over to business and to life in general. As we seek to understand, we must learn to time and phrase our questions well. Yes, in the example above the dog walker was ambiguous in his answer, but that happens all the time in business. If you don’t ask a specific enough question, the answer you get might also be a generalization.
The Socratic method, developed by the famous philosopher Socrates informs us that asking and answering questions stimulates critical thinking and illuminates ideas. As a business leader, developing a Socratic approach to leading your team and organization can create a more inclusive work culture and fosters better team collaboration.
We have all heard the phrase there are no dumb questions, just dumb people who don’t ask questions. There is definitely truth to the statement. Consultants, therapists, counselors and others who provide individual and company assistance develop a refined skill in asking questions. Recognizing that questioning as a form of facilitation is a very powerful tool when coaching and developing people. The best leaders ask timely and poignant questions even if they already know the answer. The approach creates a more inclusive environment and gets others to build their ability to think critically.
For your next staff meeting, commit to taking a new approach and trying the Socratic method with your team.
Begin the meeting with a question rather than a speech.
Solicit response from each person at the table and then ask follow up questions.
Your goal at the meeting is to learn, not to teach.