Questioning Leadership: How to Get the Answers You Need in a Crisis

When I argued that the “A” in leadership is asking questions, I emphasized the importance of courage and curiosity. Asking questions means getting nuanced and relevant information from colleagues and followers in order to lead effectively. It’s particularly important in a crisis. But there’s a bigger challenge embedded in this not-so-small strategy — how do we ask questions in a way that we get a glimpse of the complicated truth of a situation?

time for questionsQuestions are slippery things, with an energy of their own! The ways we ask them shape the answers we get.

Many leaders have an unconscious need to hear what they want to hear or keep their followers at arms length. Many followers will be afraid to answer questions honestly, distrusting the motivation and fearing the results of a transformative conversation.

It takes real courage and emotional intelligence to ask an effective question. Here are three strategies to shift your thinking about framing questions as a leader.

Strategy #1: Prepare some core questions you’re going to ask everyone. Let those good questions guide the discussion, and be sure you listen to yourself as well as everyone else. Make sure you don’t fall into these five common question habits which will sabotage the whole process of discovery:

Avoid unproductive questions.
• Recall questions: Don’t ask questions to which the answer is obvious.
• Rhetorical questions: Don’t ask questions solely for dramatic effect.
• Yes or no questions: Don’t ask questions that inhibit discussion.
• Leading questions: Don’t ask questions that aren’t open-ended.
• Guess What I’m Thinking questions: Don’t ask questions where you’ve already formulated the answer you want.

(From Jennifer Barton, Paul Heilker, and David Rutkowski,“Fostering Effective Classroom Discussions,)  Note: Thinking more like a good teacher helps to cultivate a spirit of learning in your organization!

Strategy #2: Support full engagement in a meeting or conversation by empowering people to move beyond “Can I?” into full participation in a problem-solving assessment process which will guarantee thought provoking answers to your questions.

Miki Kashtan writes in Tikkun Daily Blog about mentoring people past the constant urge to ask permission to speak, to suggest and to innovate. She writes:

“Every time a participant in a workshop or a meeting I facilitate says something seemingly innocuous such as “Can I ask a question?,” the internal dynamics of this question recapitulate the original power relations of childhood. In that question the person hands over their power to me: I become the authority to decide what they are going to do. I take every opportunity to engage in such moments, trying to be as creative as I possibly know, sometimes playfully so, to bring awareness to the moment.

Something about learning that my power and another’s power are not at odds, that power is not a zero sum, that we can co-create an outcome that we both benefit from, fills me with indescribable joy…. I still, after some years of practice, forget much of the time and use the older construct, deeply embedded in my cells, habitually reinforced all around me. I long to remember at all times, as part of my overall dedication to the liberation of all.”  Read more and find out about the September 10 webinar Kashtan’s sponsoring about this idea…

Note: Thinking more like a facilitator or consultant helps you step out of your own habits as a leader!

Thank you, Scott Adams, for showing us so clearly what not to do!

Thank you, Scott Adams, for showing us so clearly what not to do!

Strategy #3: I’m assuming you’ve done a thorough brainstorming session with yourself before you start asking questions, so you know what you know and what you don’t know. Then, unlike Dogbert, you’ve found ways to empower and engage people in conversations. That’s the time to use your leadership skills to ask precise follow-up questions and get more meaningful answers.

In a recent Forbes, Christopher Frank suggests that business leaders filter information using the acronym “CRUNCH.”

  1. Clarify assumptions.
  2. Repeatedly drill-down. Revise and follow-up to get more detail
  3. Understand the source of information. Who, what, where, why.
  4. Narrow the results to the relevant information specific to your issue.
  5. Consider the context.  Ask about absolute results, gap to competitors and change over time.
  6. Harvest only 1-2 of the best insights. Focus on the essential learning. Disregard the rest.

Note: This follow-up process will help you build layers of information that will keep you on track for making good decisions in and out of a crisis.

What are some of the strategies you’ve used to ask effective questions and get meaningful answers?


  1. […] Questioning Leadership: How to Get the Answers You Need in a Crisis ( […]


    1. Thanks for linking to my blog! Your magazine looks great, and I agree — it’s vital to ask good questions. Your three-step check-in in this blog offers a useful list when managers face a moment when questions are their best tool!


  2. […] Questioning Leadership: How to Get the Answers You Need in a Crisis ( […]


  3. […] Develop leadership talent in others. Questions have the power to prompt reflection on the part of the respondent. In my role as an […]


  4. […] to this Video to hear her clarity on the big questions that need to be asked and answered, and the riots/protests in […]


  5. […] Questioning Leadership: How to Get the Answers You Need in a Crisis ( […]


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