Leaders Don't Need All the Answers, Just the Right Questions

Last Updated Jul 21, 2011 3:50 PM EDT

Robert Steven Kaplan's new book is called What To Ask the Person in the Mirror, and it instructs executives who think they need to know all the answers to get over it.

"Show me a company, nonprofit, or a government leader that is struggling, and almost invariably you'll see someone who isn't sufficiently focused on asking the right questions," the Harvard Business School professor says in this interview.

What kinds of questions should leaders in trouble be asking? Here's a sample:

  • Have you developed a clear vision for your enterprise?
  • Have you identified three to five key priorities to achieve that vision?
  • Does how you spend your time match your key priorities?
  • Do you solicit actionable feedback from your key subordinates?
  • Have you identified potential successors for your job?
  • If you had to change your organization today with a clean sheet of paper, what would you do differently?
  • Do your behaviors match your words?
  • Are you pursuing a path that is consistent with your assessment of your strengths, weaknesses and passions?
"In my experience, if a leader asks the right questions and is open to a path of true inquiry, compelling insights tend to 'fall out' as a matter of course," Kaplan writes in the book. The key is framing the right questions and getting in the habit of asking them regularly.

Kaplan is part of a refreshing vanguard of management scholars who no longer view the CEO as a superhero, the corner office Zeus who creates value by force of will and top-down edict. Rather, the modern executive is reflective, empathetic, full of self-awareness, someone who leads by example and by motivation, not by power and fear.

What do you think? Should executives be asking questions rather than providing answers?

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(Photo by Flickr user Bo47, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.