The Most Important Question A Leader Can Ask

I recently read an excellent blog post from Harvard Business Review entitled “The Most Important Question A Manager Can Ask”. The question proposed is “How can I help you be more effective?” This is a good question too many of us don’t ask. We are focused on our own tasks. We may be afraid of the answer. We may feel like we actually have to follow-through and do something about it. It’s a good question, but it did get me thinking “Would a leader ask the same question?”

Without getting into the famous debate of leaders vs. managers we used to have in business school, and learned a whole lot more about after business school, suffice it to say here is my conclusion. Actually, I believe a leader would ask a different question. The question a leader would ask is “How can I support you?” It’s a more important question for three reasons.

First, it informs the leader what the employee is truly concerned about. They may or may not be concerned about their effectiveness. They may have other “more important” things on their mind. As a leader, to fully engage others (and we know from Gallup studies that 70% of employees are disengaged), it is critical to understand what is on their minds.

Second the leader helps the employee understand the leader’s intent to help them in what they are focused on vs. what the leaders’ agenda is. The fact is that most human beings don’t truly engage fully in others’ agenda unless their own agenda is taken care of first. As the employee feels heard, they are more able to bring their full energy and engagement to the work at hand.

Third, the leader role models to the employee their concern for the “whole employee”, not just the “productive” or “effective” part of the employee. It creates greater loyalty and engagement to the company and to the leader. It unleashes the discretionary energy that employees hold back when the relationship with their work or manager is just transactional.

Of course this type of question is dangerous. Asked flippantly and without the correct intent, it is hollow and will lead to lost trust. It requires walking the talk. It requires shifting the “ethos” or the very being of who we are and what we as leaders care about. It requires getting clear on our own intent and following through on it. It requires being a transformational leader. It’s not easy but it is definitely worth the journey!

So, the next question is “What question are you going to ask?”

If this resonated for you, please comment, subscribe and share with others.

Henna-Inam-Professional-Photo-ColorThis article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach, speaker, and consultant.  She works with women to help them realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. They create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Nestle, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Fancisco Bonilla Lòpez May 23, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Henna ; I am totally agree with your approach to the authentic leader’s question and the inside and purpose of this question.
The question should be made for human beans, not for Robots
So the most important question an authentic transformational leader need to realize is in the mind of most of their direct reports. Is ” how can I help you to listen, understand and really help me to obtain or to be what I want”

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henna May 25, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Hi Francisco – You got it! And I am sure you are practicing this in your leadership everyday! Great to hear from you.

Henna

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Sumitra Singh June 15, 2011 at 11:10 am

Dear Henna, Of course my next question will be- How can I help you to achieve our goal ? I think it gives a sense of belonging and increases level of confidence among team members.

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