LA 048: What is the ONE thing you can do to be a better leader?

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Leaders ask questionsWhen I was a young junior hotel manager, I knew it all. I knew everything about running a hotel, the restaurant, the kitchens, and the rooms. After all, I was studying for a degree in hotel management and had worked in every department.

When a member of staff had a problem, I had a solution.

When a guest had a question about something, I always had the answer.

Not just any answer, I had the best answer!

At the time I thought that I was a terrific leader. After all, everyone did what they were supposed to do and they did it quickly, or they faced the consequences, or I would yell louder until they got the message.

I tell you, I knew every solution to every single questions, problem, difficulty. I was an excellent hotel manager and a total twat of a leader because I neglected to ask questions.

Take a moment to think about one person in your life who was a great leader. Perhaps your boss, maybe a parent or an uncle. That individual who helped you grow and whom you willingly followed. I am completely certain that they asked you questions.

See, there I go again, giving you the answer. So let me re-phrase that. This individual, who you remember as a great leader in your life, did they ask you questions?

Are you listening, really listening?

When your Doctor is listening to the slight murmurs of your heart, you know they need to listen real closely. Politicians and many bosses seem to have forgotten how to listen to pick up on the undercurrent of opinion.
When your Doctor is listening to the slight murmurs of your heart, you know they need to listen real closely.
Politicians and many bosses seem to have forgotten how to listen to the undercurrent of opinion.

In this past year of 2016, we've witnessed a sea change in the world that has taken many by surprise. The rise of popularism in politics has placed Duterte in charge in the Philippines. We've seen the belligerence and nationalism in the Brexit vote, and now we have Donald Trump as President-elect of the US after a campaign that tapped into the desire of many in the US to overturn the establishment and blame anyone and everyone else for all that ails society.

The more liberal voices are appalled that their society, their fellow citizens, their neighbours could be swayed by voting for expressions of bigotry, misogyny, racism and nationalism. After all we live in a truly connected and global world. Surely rationalism will prevail? but no, emotions won the day. And somehow, we are surprised.

The simple fact is that the established powers that be had stopped listening to the murmuring.

They didn't like what they heard and discarded it as the mutterings of a few disenchanted people who truly couldn't possibly believe what they were saying.

Just because those in power stop listening does not mean that the feelings aren't true.

Perhaps it wasn't a real problem, but it became a problem because the leaders stopped listening because they didn't like what they heard, It didn't fit with their belief system, let alone their politics.

The assumption in Brexit was that the citizens of the UK would realise how rational and sensible it was to stay in Europe, and anybody who disagreed was a racist, bigot or any other label of ‘badness'.

It matters not whether the anti-immigration argument is good or not. What matters is that no-one was listening.

When I was a kid and my mum would nag me about something, I learned the art of not listening. It was a fantastic ploy.

She would ask me to do some chore. I would ignore her. She might try again and again, each time raising her voice. I could easily continue to ignore her shouts until I heard movement and the threats would start. I would usually end up complying but filled with resentment and inside, I would be muttering loud enough to be heard but with the words indistinct.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and whilst they're speaking?

You're waiting with eager anticipation for a pause so that you can launch in with your opinion? Of course, you haven't, because you are a much better person than I am.

Perhaps your boss is misguidedly suggesting that you have not performed well enough and you are just aching to leap to your own defence.

Or one of the people at the lunch table is just hogging the entire conversation and it really is about time they heard from someone with a more sensible and intelligent viewpoint.

Do you ever find that you stopped listening whilst you are thinking about how to respond?

It's not really surprising because when most people are trying to influence others they use the well-known managerial technique I describe as Tell, Sell, Yell.

Is your habit to Tell Sell Yell?

Managers Tell, then Sell, then Yell
Managers Tell, then Sell, then Yell

My mum used this technique often. She would begin by telling us what she wanted us to do. Sensing reluctance, she would sell the benefits of doing what she wanted us to do and, more often, outlining the disadvantage of non-compliance. Lastly, she would raise her voice until we relented and followed her instructions. Just occasionally, she would give up during the process and simply do the job herself (our original intention) because it saved her a great deal of stress (and the job was done properly!)

I thought that this was just a parental approach until the manager of the hotel I worked at for a summer used the same approach. He would tell me what to do, then sell me the benefits (not being fired being number 1) and proceed to yell the instructions in the space of 10 seconds.

The Head Chef of the kitchen I joined as a Kitchen Porter did the same. Albeit the volume would normally be classified as a yell from the start.

By the time I moved into management as a junior trainee apprentice, the process of managing was well ingrained.

  • Pre-requisite: Be technically expert and know everything
  • Step 1: Tell your minions what to do
  • Step 2: Sell the benefits (dig the pain and build the gain)
  • Step 3: Yell as necessary

And it worked!

Well, it mostly worked. And mostly, the minions complied and things got done. The they would quit. Many perfected the art of quitting whilst remaining employed and being paid.

After a while, a boss would come along and tell me that this was not the right way to manage people. They would then sell me the benefits of their style. I'm sure they would have yelled next if I hadn't agreed to comply immediately.
So, in recommending a different approach, they would, unwittingly, be using the exact same approach.

Then I happened upon a leader

Leaders ask questions, who? what? how much? When, how? Why?
Leaders ask questions, who? what? how much? when, how? why?

I was initially convinced that this was a female approach, because my next 3 bosses were women and they did this bizarre thing we call asking questions.

  • Then they listened.
  • They they asked some more questions.
  • And they listened some more.
  • Then they would suggest that I do what I'd just suggested!

My third leader, who happened to be female shared a poem by Kipling:

I KEEP six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

Leaders Ask Questions, Managers Tell you the Answers

How often have you had a boss who used the Tell, Sell Yell approach? And did you like them? Would you choose to follow them?

Think of a leader you admire. Someone you have met, even better, someone you worked for or with. A leader you like and trust and would follow.

Did they ask you questions or did they tell you the answers?

When you ask questions of someone, you are showing them respect that they know the answers, and you are communicating in the way the brain works.

You see, the brain craves answers, It craves certainty. And it finds answers in a specific neuro-mechanical process.
The first three questions our brain has to answers are who or what, how much and where.


Our brain's neuro-mechanical process requires an answer to What or who, how much and where - before the next questions matter. We have to place it in context and value for ourselves and locate this in our world first.
Our brain's neuro-mechanical process requires an answer to What or who, how much and where – before the next questions matter. We have to place it in context and value for ourselves and locate this in our world first.

That is, we need to understand the context of the situation (who and/or what), how much something is worth or its value (to us) and we need to have a map locating this in our world.

Then we want to know when this needs to happen or a timeline for it to take place, locating this in time.

Once the brain is satisifed with the context, value and location does it crave to know when, how and why
Once the brain is satisfied with the context, value and location does it crave to know when, how and why

Then, and only then, does it matter how this is to be accomplished. Finally, we need to know why. What's in it for me?
Or, you could start with Why and then what, who, how much, where, when and how.

So instead of telling someone why they are doing it, what they should do, how much it costs and how much they gain. Where they should do it, when and how. You turn it all into questions and ask:

Instead of Managing:

  • (Tell) Do this ? in this place? with this other person? next time?
  • (Sell) This is how you will benefit
  • (Yell) You should do this in this way so that?


  • What do you (who) think you should do in this situation (who/where)?
  • How much will that cost you (in time, money effort). How much will you gain form this approach?
  • When would be a great time to start?
  • How are you going to do this?
  • Why are you going to do this?

When should I manage and when should I lead?

Instead of answering that, may I ask you a question?

Would you prefer to be told or asked?

I think that you have your answer.

Leaders Ask Questions, Managers Tell you the Answers

Check out this episode!

Professional Leadership Caddy

I help people unlock their talent, unstuck their potential and unleash their own (and their team's) performance through behavioural neuroscience based coaching and mentoring.

Most whip smart independent contributors, technical specialists and managers get frustrated trying to be heard and understood by their business leaders and they lack enough time and inclination to develop the skills they need to move into management and leadership positions.

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I combine time-tested systems, behavioural neuroscience and psychology research and practical tools with the accountability and guidance of a 1:1 coach and mentor to UnLock your Talent, UnStuck Your Potential and UnLeash Your Performance.

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