Why the Socratic Method is One of Your Best Leadership Tools

The leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but certainly, the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask. -Peter Drucker


Socrates, Peter Drucker and other great leaders know that questions are one of your most powerful leadership skills. As a leader, how well do you use them? If you are like most, then your honest answer may be…not so well. Too many intelligent, skilled, and otherwise capable leaders are not asking the right questions.

The Power of Questions

A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that shifts the way we perceive or think about something. Warren Berger, author of A Beautiful Question

Socrates continuously asked his students questions until they saw and understood their false assumptions and contradictions in their own logic. You can use them to:

  1. Encourage delegation. Asking employees questions sends a message that you don’t have all the answers, and it motivates them to solve their own problems. On the other hand, always providing answers trains your employees to stop thinking on their own and to ask you for the “correct” answer.
  2. Help make better decisions. Too many organizations try to solve a problem before they fully understand it. Questions trigger curiosity, deeper analysis and new solutions.
  3. Promote relationships. According to David AugsburgerAsking great questions is half of true listening. Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” Your curiosity demonstrates to others’ (including your spouse) how important their time, opinion and energy is to you.
  4. Encourage a culture of curiosity and innovation. Curiosity is much more important to a company’s performance than was previously thought.  Innovators approach situations with an open and childlike, inquisitive mind.
  5. Determine your own mindset when posed to yourself. For example, “Will I fail again?” focuses your attention on failure, whereas “How can I use my strengths?” directs your attention to your strengths, helping you feel more positive.

Are convinced that questions are critical? Great! Here is the bad news. You must shift your mindset from a being a “Teller” Leader to a “Learner” Leader. “Tellers” mindset is closed and, as a result, they answer questions and give specific instructions to their direct reports.  “Learner” mindset is one of curiosity, so they ask great questions and engage in discussions.

 

Types of Questions

Good questions inform; great questions transform.” –John Maxwell

I categorize questions into three types:

1) Leading questions include an implied or explicit answer. Trial attorneys use them expertly, but leave that “tool” for them. They’re not for Learner Leaders.

2) Closed questions can be answered quickly, with little thought.

3) Open questions do not lead, and, instead:

  • Focus on learning about the individual, not on your need.
  • Are neutral, with no emotional charge, hidden suggestion, assumption or contradictory body language.
  • Invoke thought and reflection.
  • Promote insight.
  • Uncover opinions and emotions.
  • Allow you to be in control by steering the direction and depth of the conversation.
  • Require more than a one- or two-word answer.
  • Don’t start with “Have you…”
  • Don’t include an “either”/“or”

Here are a few examples of useful open questions(A larger list of questions can be found heToo many intelligent, skilled, and otherwise capable leaders are not asking the right questions. Click To Tweetre).

  1. What do you want to accomplish?
  2. What is your ideal outcome?
  3. What are you willing to give up in order to achieve your desired outcome?
  4. What would happen if you did nothing?
  5. What are you feeling?
  1. That’s an interesting thought. What process did you go through to reach that conclusion?
  2. “Tell me more.” acts like an open question.

 

A culture that encourages people to ask questions also increases communication, collaboration, and transparency. If your question-asking skills need improvement, start by noticing:

  • what questions you ask yourself and how they affect your mindset.
  • how many questions you ask in conversations compared with how many instructions you give.
  • what type of question you are asking. How many are open?

Like any other valuable skill, asking effective questions takes practice.


“Questions open our minds, our eyes, and our hearts. With our questions we learn, connect, and create. We are smarter, more productive, and able to get better results. We shift our orientation from fixed opinions and easy answers to curiosity, thoughtful questions, and open-minded conversations, lighting the way to collaboration, exploration, discovery, and innovation.” Marilee Adams, Ph.D., Author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life.


The best leaders understand the power of inquiry to improve their own mindsets and engage others. Use it yourself. The next time you are asked a question, try this response: “I don’t know. What do you think?”.

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