What Makes a Good Leader

(with Bob Tiede)

What Makes a Good Leader

Bob Tiede is an expert at asking great questions and teaching other people to ask great questions. Bob has a blog called Leading with Questions, where he just celebrated his ninth anniversary. The blog is followed by leaders in more than 190 different countries. Bob is also the author of four very popular books: Now That’s a Great Question, 339 Questions Jesus Asked, Great Leaders Ask Questions, and the Little Book of Big Leading with Questions Quotes

In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing the best strategies to become a good leader in our businesses by asking questions. 

What makes a good leader?

In 1997, Navy Captain D. Michael Abrashoff, took over command of the USS Benfold, one of America’s warships. Morale on that ship was the lowest in the Navy at that time and 18 months after Abrashoff took over as captain, morale was the highest in the Navy. His key strategy to solve this problem was to listen.

Abrashoff interviewed each of the 300 soldiers on the ship for about 15 minutes and asked them three questions: 

  1. What do you like the best about this ship?
  2. What do you like least?
  3. What would you change if you could?

On the first day, the men on board the ship immediately knew their captain cared about their thoughts. As Abrashoff listened and went to implement things based on the answers, he was able to give the sailors’ credit for the ideas because he listened and understood what his soldiers needed and wanted. That recognition gave him better trust and credibility from every soldier onboard. 

As he listened, Abrashoff also made sure he didn’t give empty promises. He didn’t tell the soldiers he would implement every change they requested, but he did tell them that he could work on a couple of the ideas they gave him. This strategy for setting expectations helped establish trust as the soldiers knew they could count on Abrashoff’s word. 

Because he listened to his men’s ideas, their morale improved and they were able to make good changes to how the ship operated. When we as leaders ask good questions and listen to the people we work with, they will know we care about them and their insights.

What questions should a leader ask? 

Bob’s passion is helping leaders become better by leading through asking questions. This concept first came to Bob in the book Leading with Questions by Michael J. Marquardt. Before he read the book, he thought a leader’s job was to tell people what to do. However, after he read it, he realized how much more effective it is to lead with questions.

Our questions don’t need to be complicated. In fact, Bob said he loves how simple this can be. He has four favorite questions: What do you think? What else? What else? What else?

Now, we can’t ask these questions in rapid succession; it will overwhelm whomever we are talking to. However, say I’m in a meeting with my team and we’re trying to solve a problem. I can ask one of my team members what they think. I listen to their response, and they pause, thinking they’re done with their answer.

I could leave it at that, but suppose I say, “Wow, those are great thoughts. What else do you have to say about that?” This team member will say more and then pause again. Then I can say, “This is good. Please tell me more about this,” not leading them in any direction with my question to get to their true thoughts.

Bob has found that when he uses this method, he gets their very best idea or thought in the third or fourth answer. Often, when someone asks what we think about something, the first answer we give them is a safe one to see how they respond to our thoughts. When Bob gives them positive reinforcement after their answers, they’re willing to share more.

If we only ask, “What do you think?” once, we are like gold miners who give up inches before striking gold. If we are open to other people’s insights and continually ask them for more, we can find great solutions and insights.

Silence is Good

Bob explained that research shows that, on average when a person asks a question, they only wait two or three seconds for an answer. If the other person doesn’t answer within two or three seconds. We are so bothered by that silence, that we have to fill it. We either re-ask the question, ask a different question, answer the question ourselves, or just move on.

Bob has an eight-second rule for asking questions: ask the question and count to at least eight. He compared it to how bull riders have to stay on the bull for eight seconds and it feels like an eternity. But allowing someone that time to think will give them time to process the question and come up with their best answer. 

“The longer the silence, the better their answer,” Bob said. If we don’t wait for their answer, we’ll never get to hear their wisdom.

The longer the_Blog

Discuss the Positives First

Bob knows a consultant who works with different companies from airlines to hospitals. He isn’t an expert on these different industries, so he often asks the same four questions to every client: What’s going well? What’s not going well? Where are you stuck? What needs to change?

He told Bob that if he has the whole day to consult with someone, he often spends the entire morning on the first question, asking follow up questions about what’s going well. He does this because if he started with the second question, he wouldn’t get a fully truthful answer. 

People don’t like to admit their failures, and they certainly don’t like to do it first thing in the morning with someone they don’t know very well. By asking what’s going well, Bob’s friend gives his clients a confidence boost so by the time they get to question two, they’re ready to talk about everything that’s going wrong and they’re in a better headspace to solve their problems.

Bob explained that the psychological reason this works well is when the brain is processing positive thoughts, positive endorphins are firing. That’s the perfect place to solve problems.

We may think, “But I don’t have time to discuss positive things when I’m trying to solve a problem. I need to solve the problem!” Well, this method may actually save us time because when the brain is firing positive endorphins we’ll likely come to a better solution than if we are stressed and rushed.

Why would it be important for entrepreneurs to ask good questions?

If we were in a rowboat with our whole team and there were enough oars for everyone and we wanted to get to the other side of the lake as quickly as possible, wouldn’t we want everyone in the boat rowing?

The same question applies to sitting in a meeting with our team. We don’t want our brain to be the only one working on solving something. If two heads are better than one, how good is a whole team?

By leading with questions, entrepreneurs will hear ideas that may be better than what they had in mind. They can then ask whoever came up with the idea to take the lead on it, and they’ll work much harder because it’s their idea. Bob said, “The entrepreneur is now getting the horsepower of his or her whole team.”

Be Open to Learning

“When we’re the leader, we can make the mistake of thinking, ‘But I know more than anybody in the room. I know more than anyone at the table. I founded this thing. I came up with this idea.’ We elevate [ourselves] to the thinking that there’s nothing I can learn. That’s a big mistake,” Bob said. 

We elevate_Blog

Great leaders are often known for being great listeners. We have to humble ourselves to listen and accept when someone has a better idea than us. It isn’t our job to order people around. It is our job to ask questions, listen, and lead the team to the best insights.

Bob encouraged us to collect questions to ask. We can keep them in a notebook or a note on our phone. They can be a reminder to us to be open to learning and to lead with questions.

Key Takeaways

Thank you so much Bob for sharing your stories and insights with us today. Here are some of my key takeaways from this episode:

  1. I love how that Navy captain improved the morale on his ship by meeting with each of the sailors on his ship, asking 3 questions, listening, and then giving them credit as he implemented the solution. As we step into new leadership roles, we can do the same thing and start by listening. 
  2. When we as leaders ask good questions and listen to the people we work with, they will know we care about them and their insights, and it will probably be easier to gain their buy-in. 
  3. If we only ask, “what do you think” once, we are like gold miners who give up inches before striking gold. If we ask them for more, we can often find greater solutions and insights.
  4. Allow for awkward silence when we’re listening. The longer the silence, often the better their answer.
  5. When the brain is processing positive thoughts, positive endorphins are firing. That’s the perfect place to solve problems.
  6. We don’t want our brain to be the only one working on solving something; we need our whole team to find the best solutions.
  7. We have to be humble to listen and accept when someone has a better idea than us.

Connect with Bob

To learn more about or connect with Bob:

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    About the author

    Nathan Gwilliam

    Nathan Gwilliam

    I help organizations navigate tectonic shifts that are transforming the business landscape, so they can optimize marketing, accelerate profits, and make a greater difference for good.

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