Why the Socratic method is one of your best leadership tools

Famed management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “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.” 

Socrates continuously asked his students questions until they saw and understood their false assumptions and the contradictions in their own logic. How strong is your question asking skill? 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. 

Questions are important in every aspect of your life because they:

1. Encourage delegation. When you ask employees questions, it sends the message that you don’t have all the answers. It also motivates them to solve their own problems. On the other hand, providing answers trains your employees to stop thinking on their own and to ask you for the “correct” answer.

2. Help you make better decisions. 

3. Promote relationships. 

4. Encourage a culture of curiosity and innovation.

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.

You are convinced that questions are critical? That’s great, but you may need to shift your mindset from a being a “teller” leader to a “learner” leader. Tellers answer questions and give specific instructions to their direct reports while learner leaders ask open questions and engage in discussions. 

Here are three common types of questions: 

Leading questions — These are questions that include an implied or explicit answer. Trial attorneys use them expertly, but leave that “tool” for them. They’re not for learner leaders.

Closed questions — These questions can be answered quickly, typically with little thought. 

Open questions — Rather than lead, this type of question is meant to: 

  •   Focus on learning about others.
  •   Be neutral, with no emotional charge, hidden suggestion, assumption or contradictory body language.
  •   Provoke thought and reflection.
  •   Promote insight.
  •   Uncover opinions and emotions.
  •   Give you control by steering the direction and depth of the conversation.
  •   Require more than a one- or two-word answer.

Open questions don’t start with “Have you” and don’t include an “either/or.”

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 versus how many instructions you give and the types of questions you are asking. How many are open?

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

Cheryl B. McMillan is chair, Northeast Ohio, for Vistage