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Good Leaders Ask Great Questions
Your Foundation for Successful Leadership
Read by John C. Maxwell
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Maxwell also opened the floodgates and invited people from around the world to ask him any leadership question. He answers seventy of them–the best of the best–including . . .
What are the top skills required to lead people through difficult times?
- How do I get started in leadership?
- How do I motivate an unmotivated person?
- How can I succeed working under poor leadership?
- When is the right time for a successful leader to move on to a new position?
- How do you move people into your inner circle?
Table of Contents
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Questions I Ask
Why Are Questions So Important?
Questions—for forty years I've asked questions on the subject of leadership. You might think that as time has gone by, and I've received thousands of answers, questions have become less important to me. But the opposite has been true. The more questions I ask, the more valuable I recognize them to be. Without the wise counsel and insightful answers I've received to questions over those decades, I wonder where I would be today. Certainly I would not have grown as much or come as far. The people who cared enough for me to give me guidance and advice when I asked questions have made a world of difference in my leadership.
Now that I'm in the second half of my life, people are asking me questions more and more. I think it's because they have come to see me as a father figure in the field of leadership. That's partly due to my age. But it's also because people sense my desire to add value to them and those who are hungry to learn often seek me out.
When I first began teaching leadership, I spent nearly all my time giving lectures. Today, at almost every speaking gig, people want time to ask me questions about leadership, which I welcome. Not only do I enjoy sharing what I've learned, but answering questions also gives me an opportunity to speak from my heart. As people share their issues and concerns with vulnerability, I try to share my experiences with transparency. I always want to help people who want to make a difference.
I've come to enjoy and value this experience so much that I wanted to write this book. It's my desire to show the impact that questions have made on my life, share the leadership questions I ask myself and others, and answer questions from people from many countries, backgrounds, and professions.
The Value of Questions
If you want to be successful and reach your leadership potential, you need to embrace asking questions as a lifestyle. Here's why:
1. You Only Get Answers to the Questions You Ask
Have you ever failed to ask a question because you thought it might be dumb? I have! Too many times I've allowed my desire not to look foolish to keep me from gaining knowledge that I needed. Richard Thalheimer, the founder of the Sharper Image, once asserted, "It is better to look uninformed than to be uninformed." For that reason we need to curb our egos and ask questions, even at the risk of looking foolish.
If you're worried that asking questions will make you look bad, let me give you some perspective. I enjoy reading Marilyn vos Savant's column in Sunday's Parade magazine. Listed in Guinness World Records for "Highest IQ," she answers difficult and often bewildering questions from readers. In her column of July 29, 2007, she decided to share questions she found difficult to answer, not because they were too tough, but because—well, take a look:
- "I notice you have the same first name as Marilyn Monroe. Are you related?"
- "Do you think daylight saving time could be contributing to global warming? The longer we have sunlight, the more it heats the atmosphere."
- "I see falling stars nearly every night. They seem to come out of nowhere. Have stars ever fallen out of any known constellations?"
- "When I dream, why don't I need my glasses to see?"
- "Can a ventriloquist converse with his dentist while his teeth are being worked on?"
- "I just observed a flock of geese flying in a 'V' formation. Is that the only letter they know?"1
Now don't you feel better about the quality of your questions?
If you want answers, you must ask questions. No one has helped me understand the value of questions more than my friend Bobb Biehl. In his book Asking Profound Questions, Bobb writes:
There is a gigantic difference between the person who has no questions to help him/her process situations and the person who has profound questions available. Here are a few of the differences:
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Shallow answers
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Profound answers
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Lack of confidence
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Life confidence
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Poor decision making
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Wise decision making
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Live in mental fog
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Crystal clear focus in life
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Work on low priorities
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Focused on high priorities
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Immature processing
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Mature processing2
Asking the right question of the right person at the right time is a powerful combination because the answers you receive set you up for success. IBM founder Thomas J. Watson said, "The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer." But that's true only if you are willing to ask the question.
"The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer."
—Thomas J. Watson
2. Questions Unlock and Open Doors That Otherwise Remain Closed
Growing up I used to watch Let's Make a Deal, the TV show where contestants often got to choose among three doors to try to win the grand prize. It was fun to watch, but it was pure luck. Sometimes people won great stuff. Other times they got nothing.
In life's journey we face many doors. Hidden behind them are all kinds of possibilities leading to opportunities, experiences, and people, but the doors must be opened before we can go through them. Questions are the keys to opening these doors. For example, recently I had the privilege to interview former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at Stanford University for the Leadercast event. Knowing that more than 150,000 people would be watching, I wanted to ask good questions of this amazing woman who has such extraordinary knowledge and life experiences so that we could learn from her. I spent days doing research, reading her books, and talking to people who would give me insight into her.
When I finally met her, I found her to be delightful and insightful. With each question I was able to open more doors of understanding into her experiences. By the end of our time I had found a wonderful friend. I learned a great deal, and I believe the rest of the audience did too.
Management expert Peter Drucker said, "My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions." He knew the secret. Successful leaders relentlessly ask questions and have an incurable desire to pick the brains of the people they meet.
3. Questions Are the Most Effective Means of Connecting with People
I often watch speakers stand before an audience and work to build a case for their ideas. They would be more successful if instead they tried building a relationship with the people in the room. The word communication comes from the Latin word communis, meaning "common." Before we can communicate we must establish commonality. The greater the commonality, the greater the potential for connection and communication. The goal of effective communication is to prompt people to think, Me too! Too many speakers seem to elicit the thought So what?
The most effective way to connect with others is by asking questions. All of us have experienced the interest of others when we were lost and asked for directions. People will usually stop what they're doing to help others. Questions connect people.
Of course, you have to ask the right questions. In 2013 I was invited to play in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Every golfer dreams of playing this great course, but being asked to play it with the best golfers in the world was beyond my dreams! For the event, another amateur and I were paired with two pros: Steve LeBrun and Aaron Watkins. We had such a great time. But let me tell you something: over the four days of golf with them, the professional golfers never once asked me any questions about golf. Not once did they ask me to help them line up a putt or to give advice about what club they should use. Why? Those weren't the right questions to ask me. I have nothing of value to offer them in that area of their lives. I am an amateur. On the other hand, they did ask me a lot of questions about personal growth, leadership, and book writing. In fact, they even asked if I would sign books for them.
What you ask matters. So does how you ask. If we want to connect with people, we can be like the census taker who had driven many miles down a remote country road to reach a mountain cabin. As he pulled up, a woman sitting on the porch yelled at him, "We don't want any. We're not buying anything."
"I'm not selling anything," the census taker said. "I'm here to take the census."
"We don't have one," the woman said.
"You don't understand," the census taker said. "We're trying to find out how many people there are in the United States."
"Well," she said, "you sure wasted your time driving out here to ask me, because I don't have any idea."
As playwright George Bernard Shaw observed, "The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished."
"The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished."
—George Bernard Shaw
4. Questions Cultivate Humility
Early in my career I didn't ask many questions. I mistakenly believed that as a leader I should know the answers to the people's questions. As a result, I adopted the ridiculous attitude of "fake it 'til you make it." Unfortunately, that caused me to do a lot of faking but very little making. It took time for me to become mature enough to say, "I don't know" and "I need your help."
Had I been wiser, I would have paid attention to the words of King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, who looked at the enormity of his leadership responsibilities and said, "I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties."3
Paul Martinelli, the president of the John Maxwell Team, once told me, "All fear stems from either 'I am not enough' or 'I don't have enough.' " That's a keen insight. Too often, fear keeps us from being vulnerable and feeling secure enough to ask questions. When I was a young leader, I didn't feel wise enough, strong enough, mature enough, competent enough, confident enough, or qualified enough. When I began to be honest with myself, allow my weaknesses to humble me, and go to God for help, I began to change. I became more open and authentic. I was willing to admit my mistakes and weaknesses. I developed appropriate humility, and I began to change and grow.
My journey at that time was difficult and often lonely. I had to drop many bad habits. I had to change wrong priorities. I had to embrace new ways of thinking. I had to ask myself hard questions. Before, I had been unwilling to be wrong, and as a result I had been unable to discover what was right. Isn't it strange how we must surrender being right in order to find what's right, how humility enables us to be authentic, vulnerable, trustworthy, and intimate with others? People are open to those who are open to them.
5. Questions Help You to Engage Others in Conversation
Larry King, who has made his living speaking to people as a television talk show host, believes that asking questions is the secret of good conversation. He says,
I'm curious about everything, and if I'm at a cocktail party, I often ask my favorite question: "Why?" If a man tells me he and his family are moving to another city: "Why?" A woman is changing jobs: "Why?" Someone roots for the Mets: "Why?"
On my television show, I probably use this word more than any other. It's the greatest question ever asked, and it always will be. And it is certainly the surest way of keeping a conversation lively and interesting.4
Whenever I am preparing for a meeting with someone, I spend time determining what questions I want to ask. I do this because I want to make the most of the time I have, but I also do it to engage with the other person. I want people to know that I value them, and that, if possible, I want to add value to them. To do that, I believe I must get to know them. That requires that I ask questions, they talk, and I listen. And if I hope to receive value from people, again I need to ask questions and listen. You can't do these things unless you get to know people.
I encourage the use of questions to engage others and to learn from them. I believe you will find it one of the most rewarding practices you ever develop.
6. Questions Allow Us to Build Better Ideas
I am a strong believer in the power of ideas and of shared thinking. Any idea gets better when the right people get a chance to add to it and improve it. And good ideas can become great ones when people work together to improve them. I believe so strongly in this idea that in my book How Successful People Think I wrote a chapter called "Benefit from Shared Thinking."
What is the key to shared thinking? Asking the right people the right questions. There's great power in doing that. As speaker Brian Tracy says, "A major stimulant to creative thinking is focused questions. There is something about a well-worded question that often penetrates to the heart of the matter and triggers new ideas and insights."
"A major stimulant to creative thinking is focused questions."
In my early years of pastoring I attended an idea exchange led by very successful pastors. The genius of this event was that successful leaders shared their best practices with others who had the chance to ask questions. Young up-and-coming pastors also got to share their fresh ideas with more experienced leaders, who gave them feedback. The atmosphere of the conference was that of contagious hope and creative thinking because the entire experience was based on questions. It was a place where ideas were being reshaped into even better ideas.
I never forgot that experience, and later it was the catalyst for a monthly mentoring group called the Table, in which hand-selected leaders talk with me. The group met recently at a huge one-of-a-kind round table at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in Atlanta. It was a magical day with great people asking great questions and adding value to each other. Because the Table members are from all over North America, most months we meet by phone. The interaction is fantastic as we discuss tough leadership issues and sharpen one another.
Any leader who asks the right questions of the right people has the potential to discover and develop great ideas. Inventor Thomas Edison observed, "The ideas I use are mostly the ideas of people who don't develop them." Making it a practice to ask the right people the right questions will allow you to develop ideas to a whole new level.
Any leader who asks the right questions of the right people has the potential to discover and develop great ideas.
7. Questions Give Us a Different Perspective
Too often, as leaders, we get fixated on our own point of view and spend our time trying to convince others of our opinions instead of trying to find out theirs. As English novelist and politician Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton asserted, "The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man's observation, not overturning it."
That's where questions come into play. By asking questions and listening carefully to answers, we can discover valuable perspectives other than our own. That's valuable because we often make faulty assumptions about other people:
We believe people are good at the same things we are good at—they aren't.
We believe people are energized by the same things that energize us—they aren't.
We believe people see the big picture in the same way we do—they don't.
A wise leader once told me, "Before you attempt to set things right, make sure you see things right." That advice helped me to understand that most miscommunication is a result of people's having different assumptions. We can correct those wrong assumptions and prevent miscommunication by asking questions.
When I was the lead pastor at Skyline in San Diego, our staff did extensive interviews with people when they became members of the church. One of the questions we always asked was "What is the main thing you would change about the church?" That question paid great dividends because their fresh eyes saw things that ours did not. I would estimate that 80 percent of the positive changes we made were the result of what people told us in answer to those questions.
8. Questions Challenge Mind-Sets and Get You Out of Ruts
Too many people have flat-lined mentally. They've become stagnant. How do you fight against that? By asking the same question my friend Bill used to ask me: "When was the last time you had a good thought for the first time?"
Asking questions is a great way of preventing mental laziness and moving ourselves out of ruts. If you begin a task with certainties, you will probably end in doubts. But if you are willing to begin with doubts, you will likely end in certainties. Perhaps that's why someone once said, "The future belongs to the curious. The ones who are not afraid to try it, explore it, poke at it, question it, and turn it inside out."
The future belongs to the curious.
Leadership author and trainer Mark Miller was listening to the 2012 TED presentations when he noticed that most had a trait in common: the talks had been prompted by a question beginning with why.
- "Why do children with rare diseases have to suffer?"—Jimmy Lin, a computer geneticist
- "Why can't we look for ancient archaeological sites from satellites?"—Sarah Parck, archaeologist
- "Why don't young people want to study neuroscience?"—Greg Gage, neuroscientist
If you want to make discoveries, if you want to disrupt the status quo, if you want to make progress and find new ways of thinking and doing, you need to ask questions. Questions are the first link in the chain of discovery and innovation.
Speaker Anthony Robbins observed, "Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers." I have found that to be true. In fact, I don't think it would be an overstatement for me to say that questions have changed my life and become the markers of significant events.
"Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers."
Life is a journey, one in which we seek to find our way and make a difference. Questions help us to make that journey. In fact, the word question is derived from the Latin root word quaerere meaning "ask" or "seek." It has the same root as the word quest.5 Sometimes the questions come from others. Sometimes the questions are ones we ask. Either way, the answers mark us.
Life-Changing Questions Others Asked Me
Many wise and generous people have asked me questions that have positively affected my life. Though I could list hundreds or maybe thousands of questions others have asked that helped me, I want to share with you the top ten:
1. "What do you want to do with your life?"—Dad
More than any other person on earth, my father influenced me. He guided my early journey with wisdom and strength. He not only asked me this question, he also helped me find the answer. He suggested that I had good people skills and that my life should include connecting with and helping others. All my life I have tried to add value to people because he asked me this question.
2. "Do you know you're a leader?"—Mr. Horton
I've been influenced by many teachers. Mr. Horton taught me in fifth grade. When I was elected to be the "judge" by my classmates and he saw that I was always choosing the teams at recess, he recognized my leadership behavior. He understood that leadership was influence. He not only observed my leadership behavior but pointed it out to me and started me out on my leadership journey.
3. "Do you have a plan for your personal growth?"—Curt Kampmeier
How would I have known that a breakfast meeting with a seminar trainer would be the beginning of my lifelong personal growth journey? Curt's question caused me to search myself and find myself wanting. It was the catalyst for my growth. And because I know the power of that question, I have asked it in hundreds of conferences of tens of thousands of people. Today, many successful people can point to that question as the beginning of their growth journey too.
4. "Can I help you get started in business?"—Tom Phillippe
I started my career in the ministry, but I've always had an innovative mind-set, a kind of entrepreneurial spirit. Tom is a lifelong friend who wanted to help me grow financially and gave me an opportunity to invest in my future. I borrowed the money I needed for the investment and Tom made sure it was secure and successful. Truly, I think money is overrated in our culture, but it does give a person options, and for that I am grateful. Tom's question and my willingness to respond brought about an amazing benefit to my life.
5. "How can we receive regular ongoing training from you?"—Thirty-one attendees of a leadership conference
After I spent a day teaching leadership at a Holiday Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, one of the conference attendees asked me that question, and others chimed in. They wanted to receive ongoing leadership training after the conference. After giving it some quick thought I said, "What if I recorded a monthly leadership lesson and sent it to you for five dollars a month?" All thirty-one people signed up and gave me their contact information, and I went home and figured out what to do. I taught a leadership lesson to my staff, recorded it, and mailed out tapes to subscribers. That was the beginning of what is now the Maximum Impact Club. That subscription list quickly grew to more than ten thousand people and has continued to train leaders for the last thirty years. It also was the start of my developing training resources, and of what would eventually become The John Maxwell Company.
6. "What could we do to make a difference?"—Larry Maxwell
My brother has been a major influence in my life from the time we were kids. No one challenges me more than he does. He asked me this question in 1995, and it became the catalyst for the founding of EQUIP, the largest leadership training organization in the world. Millions of trained leaders in more than 175 countries have benefited because Larry asked that question.
7. "What will you do with the second half of your life?"—Bob Buford
Bob is a friend, but I was confronted with this question when I read his book Half Time. Here is the passage that grabbed my attention:
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