Leadership by Question

June 12, 2018

In 1954, Peter Drucker first introduced Management by Objectives. It's a process designed to maximize performance through the setting of clear goals and defining how to get there.  Since its introduction other 'Management by' philosophies have emerged, such as Management by Exception and Management by Wandering. Now we would like to introduce one of our own: the idea of Leadership by Question.

Leadership vs. Management


For the record, we prefer using the term leadership over management. Leadership is about moving in a certain direction and showing people the way there, while management tends to be more about how you can optimize the status quo. Organizations today are in a state of constant movement and standing still isn't an option. Therefore what organizations today need is more people showing the way to what's next.


The Leadership concept is also way more relevant for modern teams. Modern teams consist of creative professionals and knowledge workers who need a high level of autonomy and collaboration to achieve exceptional results. The topic we discuss in this article is how to know and show the way for a modern team.

The main task as the leader of a modern team is to develop the potential of each team member to the maximum - so that they can autonomously achieve the highest results. Effective leaders are not withholding information and knowledge for the sake of self-interest. They really want their team and people to become the best they can be, and believe that with that approach everyone wins.

Leaders are interested in the most effective ways to improve someones performance. The classic model for effective leadership is Situational Leadership. Situational leadership is a leadership style that has been developed and studied by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey. Situational leadership refers to when the leader of an organization must continue to adjust his style to fit the development level of the followers he is trying to influence. If a team member is not able to perform a task but is motivated, he'll need more directing. If the team member is competent but not motivated, he needs more support.



The Leadership by Question approach addresses any level of both competence and motivation at the same time. It takes a different vantage point by starting from how people learn. As the objective of the Leader is to maximize performance, we're looking for the most effective way to 'teach' team members to strife toward higher levels of understanding and performance. Asking the right questions is one of the most effective ways to teach.

Besides it being an effective teaching approach, Leadership by Question also includes the intention to develop a high level of team member autonomy. It aims to have the team member think and do independently within a collaborative environment and reduce dependency on the leader.

It is also an effective tool for determining if the team has a well thought through plan and knows its goals. Through asking the right questions the leader can learn a lot while keeping the team empowered, guiding them toward defining answers, and clarifying the plan.

Lastly, the approach aims to develop a high level of accountability and ownership. With independence and autonomy comes responsibility. This approach puts the decision making and approach taken mostly in the hands of the team, not just the team leader. This leads to both better decision making and more accountability. Encouraging ownership is a highly effective way to motivate, which is a key driver of performance.

Leadership by Question

As a teaching tool, the idea of Leadership by Question stands in sharp contrast with today's most used style - the instruction style. Using the instruction style, the leader tells the team what to do and which direction to take - essentially giving the team all of the answers. Following the Leadership by Question style, the leader instead asks the team what it plans to do, which direction it is taking and how that plan is going. It is a pull approach rather than a push approach.

The benefits of this approach are:

  • Utilizes the creativity, perspective and knowledge of team members to generate better solutions and decision

  • Empowers and motivates, gives a sense of contribution

  • Creates autonomous professionals with critical thinking skills

  • Increases accountability and ownership

  • Unlocks continuous learning



So what questions should the leader ask? A master of this skill will be able to resist the temptation to give answers and figure out how to ask the best questions instead.

The most fundamental questions any team should have clear answers to are:

  • Why: what is the purpose, the mission? What are the goals?

  • What: what are the activities the team is executing to achieve the goals?

  • How: how is the team executing the activities? Processes, best practices, specifications, quality control etc

  • Who: who is doing what?

  • When: when will activities be completed and goals achieved?

You can bring these questions to the individual team member level too. What are your goals? What activities will help you get there? How are you approaching it? When will it be done? (Learn more about how you can use these questions to manage a remote team).

There are many other great examples of questions leaders should be asking. Peter Drucker wrote a little book called the Five most Important Questions you will ever ask about your organization.


The five questions are:

  1. What is our mission?

  2. Who is our customer?

  3. What does the customer value?

  4. What are our best results?

  5. What is our plan?

Taking the SCRUM approach, leaders should ask their team daily:

  1. What did you work on yesterday?

  2. What will you work on today?

  3. Are there any obstacles?

When you are discussing a subject matter such as selling, marketing, how to operate a machine, how to deal with team conflict, specifics about your product - name it - there are more questions that could be asked instead of answers to give. By asking questions you and the team member will both learn how clear things are and can start filling any gaps.

Of course you can go overboard with this as well. Sometimes giving the answers, directing and instructing is most effective. The key is to become a question driven leader with instruction and become the exception instead of the other way around.

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