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If You're Always Giving Orders, You're Not a Great Leader

The best leaders spend five times more time teaching with questions than telling people what to do. What's your ratio?

Think about a leader and chances are your first image is of someone giving orders -- maybe it’s the quarterback in a huddle outlining the next play for his teammates, maybe it’s an army officer coolly  barking commands in the heat of combat. But chances are, when many of us think of leadership, we picture a person telling others what to do.

After all, that’s the essence of leadership, right?

Wrong, says Christine Comaford, an executive coach and author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together who recently participated in a series of interviews on the website of fellow author Keith Ferrazzi. In the course of a long exchange about leadership, she tells the story of an executive she was coaching who couldn’t stop telling his employees how to do day-to-day things.

It was a waste of time and a distraction for the executive, Comaford explains, and resulted in employees who weren’t really developing new skills or additional confidence. By continuously giving detailed orders, the executive was teaching his team learned helplessness. Leaders needs to set a course for a company, Comaford insists, but they shouldn’t spend much time telling people how to get there. So how can you eliminate the need to tell people what to do so often? By asking questions, she says:

Here’s your recipe: five inquiries per advocacy. Advocacy is giving an order and inquiry is asking a question. So “George” comes to you and says, “Hey Keith, how should I process this order?” And you say, “Well, gosh, you know, what would you do? Okay, what else? Who should we loop in? What could go right? What could go wrong?”

I find if you ask that person five questions, you’ll probably have to do that three times. They’ll come to you another time, you’ll take them through five questions, [and then] they come to you another time. It’s a magic number. After three inquiry sessions, they’re then going to get it; they’re going to start to forge a new pathway, and they’re going to go, “Wow, whenever I go and ask Keith for orders, he actually asks me what I would do.” ... He’ll come to you for one or two more validation sessions - then he’s off and running. He’s owning it. This is how we get leaders five to 15 more hours per week, because we get them out of the order-giving business.

So picture a leader again. Instead of a general pointing to the distance and saying ‘storm that hill!’ what do you see now? That same battle toughened soldier, but this time his troops are circled around a map and he’s pointing at an objective. 'We need to storm that hill!' pipes up one soldier. 'Yup,' responds our general, 'how many guys are you going to take? What route are you going to use?'

This image may not have the same romance as decisive and dictatorial top brass, but this sort of collaboration and talent development is more likely to grow more leaders, more likely to get a group fresh ideas and more likely to get the whole group up the hill. The same goes for your business. If you teach your team confidence and competence with questions rather than dependence with orders, they’re more likely to have the ideas and skills that will help your company succeed.

What’s your ratio of orders given to questions asked?



Last updated: Jul 22, 2013


Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

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