If you want to be a successful leader, research shows there's a winning approach you can take--and it may not be what you expect.

Most people are familiar with the idea of self-affirmations and the power of positive thinking. "If you think you can do it, you can" is a notion that crops up often in self-help books and videos. Though that approach may be helpful in some circumstances, science is showing that being curious can be a more powerful motivator, and it can fuel the innovation-focused and big-picture thinking that is common among great leaders.

More specifically, it turns out that asking questions of yourself, rather than psyching yourself up with "I will" statements, results in people persisting longer at challenging tasks. The researchers who first introduced this idea tasked their study's participants with solving challenging word scramble puzzles--but there was a twist. One group was asked to think about the fact that they would soon be working on these puzzles. The other group was asked to wonder about whether they would soon be working on them.

The researchers found that participants who wondered what would happen solved many more anagrams than participants who focused on what they were told would happen. Similarly, when groups were instructed to think to themselves "I will," they fared worse than groups that were told to ask themselves questions starting with "Will I?" This was true not only with word puzzles but also with exercise.

How to Question Yourself to Success

The lesson here? Instead of willing yourself to achieve, question yourself to success, and you'll soon be thinking like a leader. There are actually several key ways to do just that. Let's take a look at some of the most important types of questions you can ask if you want to think like a leader.

1. Look inward first.

Change comes from within, so you should start by questioning yourself. These questions should probe your character, values, abilities, goals, and direction.

For example, you can ask yourself, "What are my values?" That's a good foundation for all other questions. You can then wonder about whether your goals and the direction to those goals are aligned with your values. Then, you can ponder whether your abilities are sufficient to advance those goals. Finally, be sure to look within yourself and consider whether your character matches with everything else.

2. Use questions to connect with your team.

Too often, leaders fail to understand the concerns and thinking of those they work with. Asking questions is one of the easiest ways to know the thoughts and needs of your colleagues. So, talk to your team members. Ask them questions that get at the fundamental issues of their role in your workplace and glean any insights on possible opportunities for your team to succeed.

These should be questions about what's important to the members of your team, what they are excited about, and in what direction they would love to see their work headed. But they should also probe problems they are having and what is holding them back from overcoming those challenges. By having a frank and open discussion about their role, you can not only discover issues that need to be addressed but also create a greater sense of connection between you.

3. Keep questioning what's possible.

In business, as in life, tired assumptions are the enemy. In order to stay vital, you need to keep questioning the fundamentals of what you and those around you are doing. For your business, it's key to question the entire marketplace you're working in. That includes business realities like shareholder value, technology (and its supposed limits), public sentiment, and what might be possible in the future.

Don't be afraid to make your questions childlike. That kind of open-mindedness is a great asset for asking the kinds of questions that can revolutionize an industry. Starting questions with "What if..." is a good way to put yourself in that frame of mind.

Almost all human progress starts with questioning. From science to politics to business, asking questions about why and how and for what purpose very often reveals an overlooked aspect of the current situation and an opportunity for growth and improvement.

Don't get complacent--keep questioning, and encourage your team to do the same. Companies that keep a spirit of wonder and searching will be the best prepared to take on the big challenges of this century.