vendredi 15 décembre 2006

some final questions

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Curiosity has its reason for existence.”
—Albert Einstein, American scientist
“We can only learn and grow if we are willing to ask a lot
of good questions.”
—Dr. Alan Gregerman,
American business consultant
“How can we improve this?”
—Walt Disney, American entrepreneur
Here we are at the end. So:
What will you take away from this journey we’ve made together? Have
you started your own list of questions?
I hope so. Go back and look at the worksheets. Maybe
you’ll find inspiration in the Appendix. Start a list on
your handheld organizer or buy a new notebook. Good
questions show up at the most unusual times.
Do you find yourself with a broader view of leadership?
This question demands a short stop. At the beginning
of this book I said that I believed that you’d rather be
a good leader than a poor one and that being a great
leader would be even better. Having a bigger view of
what leadership is and can be is worth the investment
you put into reading this book.
Are you one who takes big steps or baby steps?
Try some baby steps first. Pick your favorite question
and work with it for a while. Gauge people’s reactions
and monitor your comfort, as you become a leader who
asks questions.
Have you given yourself goals and a deadline?
Oh, for heaven’s sake. You’ve been around too long not
to know why this is important.
Do you need to ponder more?
Important. Give yourself time to think things through
and get comfortable with new actions. Just don’t use
pondering as an excuse for not starting.
Are you feeling confident or anxious?
Either is okay. Both at the same time are understandable.
What support system can you count on?
Who can you enlist to support your personal change
Is leadership worth being passionate about?
Yes. One might even say that a leader without passion
is no leader at all.
Do these questions never end?
The questions never end, or you should hope they
never end because questions are linked with learning,
and learning is linked with growth, and the only alter-
native to growth is death. Not a good choice.
Are we done now?
I am. You’re just starting.
Little children ask questions all the time because they’re curious.
Adults are often afraid to ask questions because they are afraid of
appearing stupid, ignorant, or uninformed.
I admire leaders who ask questions like children. I know they’re
What would I do if I knew I could not fail?
If I believed would the wind always fill up my sail?
How far would I go, what could I achieve
Trusting the hero in me?
What would I do today if I were brave?
From If I Were Brave
Words and music by
Jana Stanfield and Jimmy Scott

delivering tough answers

are almost at the end, and in a way we’re back
where we started. What’s your model for a leader? If it’s still
the fount of all wisdom, the worshiped guru, or the benev-
Sometimes, the question is more
important than the answer.
—Plato, Greek philosopher
olent know-it-all, answering the questions in this chapter
will be tough. If, on the other hand, you’ve developed a
model of the leader as a seeker of truth, a coacher of individuals, or
a teacher who learns, they’ll be simpler.
These answers aren’t fun to give. They deal with situations where
you have to say no, keep information secret, or tell people things
they don’t want to hear. These answers are the right answers to give
in difficult situations—they’re tough, and you’re the leader who has
to deliver them.
Answering when the answer is I don’t know
We established early on that becoming a leader does not ensure
that you become the fount of all wisdom. That being true, you’re
bound to face a question where you simply don’t know the answer.
Don’t panic.
First, think through the question again to determine if you’ve
been asked a fact question or an opinion question. If you’ve been
asked an opinion question, you have to answer. You’re the leader;
you’re expected to have opinions. If you’ve actually never thought
through this particular issue, you can say, “Good question. I’ve never
been asked that before. Let me think for a moment and come back
to this one.” Then your obligation is to return to the topic and
express your opinion.
If you’ve been asked a fact question, and you don’t know the
answer, don’t (under any circumstances) make up an answer. Your
credibility as a leader as well as your reputation in your area of
expertise will plummet faster than you can imagine when you’re
found out (and you will be). In this situation, simply reply, “I don’t
know, but I’ll check the facts and get back to you.” Now your obli-
gation is to do what you promised. Check the facts and get back to
the person who asked the question. Your reputation will be
enhanced as long as you follow through.
Answering when the answer is No
No means no, but leaders and parents often fall into the same trap
and use it to mean maybe. This is a place when your past track record
will serve or haunt you. If you consistently say no when you mean
no and say maybe when you mean maybe, then, over time, answering
with a no will be easier.
However, if you consistently deliver no responses without pro-
viding a context for the no, you will be seen as an autocratic leader.
Never having aspired to that particular title, I’ve always chosen to
focus on the context that produced the no answer.
One of a leader’s most significant roles is that of teacher; deliv-
ering context is the best place I know to see leader-as-teacher in
action. Saying no tells people what not to do, but it doesn’t teach
them anything. When leaders take the time to describe the process
they use to reach a decision, they are teaching. If you explain the
data you reviewed, the conversations you had and with whom, and
the decision-making criteria you used, others will not only under-
stand this decision, but they’ll be able to follow your process the next
time it’s their turn to make a decision.
Who knew how valuable a no could be?
Answering when there isn’t an answer
Some questions just can’t be answered. Not because you can’t reveal
information or because all the facts aren’t in, but because there just
isn’t an answer.
Life is full of questions that can’t be answered. How big is the
universe? How high is up? Why do bad things happen to good peo-
ple? These questions exist, and people aren’t happy about them. I
believe that most people think of questions as if they were mystery
novels. Some are so easy that you know who did it right from the
beginning of the book. Others are more complex and take a while
to figure out. Good mystery novels, like good questions, challenge
you to think, and when you do, there’s great satisfaction. Then
there’s the complex mystery you’ve read with great attention. You’ve
struggled with red herrings and thought you had it solved several
times only to realize you were wrong. You approach the end of the
book defeated but happy that the ending will explain it all. You turn
to the final chapter and realize that someone has torn the last two
pages out of the book. There is no answer to the mystery.
Some questions can never be answered just as some mysteries
will never be solved. People don’t like that fact, leaders don’t like
it, and I don’t like it. But it is the truth. So when you’re faced with
a question that can’t be answered, do the only thing possible—tell
the truth.
Answering when you can’t answer
State secrets, confidential information, competitive analysis—you
know the whole thing, and someone asks you a question about it.
The butterflies start immediately. The person who asked is trust-
worthy, and you’ve been their leader for a long time. They know you
know. You know that they know that you know. You can’t answer.
You’ve been cautioned, warned even. Your hands are tied. Isn’t being
a leader fun?
Try this answer on for size. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be a
leader. One of the most difficult parts of leadership for me is when
my responsibility to the members of my team comes into conflict
with my responsibilities as a leader in our organization. This is one
of those times. I will not be able to be as open with you now as I
have in the past. That being said, I want you to know that I will tell
you all that I can as soon as I can. I realize this puts a strain on our
relationship as a team. I can only hope that my behavior in the past
will allow you to trust my behavior now.”
I know, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best I’ve ever been able to come
up with. If you’ve found a better answer, please share it with me.
Answering when no one wants to hear
the answer
You know the truth; they know the truth. It’s just that no one wants
to hear it. Flash back to your college days and hear the groan that
followed the professor’s “quiz tomorrow” announcement.
Remember your reaction when your child’s teacher called and said
that your firstborn wasn’t working up to their potential. These
both represent important messages delivered to people who are
hoping against hope not to hear them. There are lots of these
moments in business. Leaders who have messages to deliver that
no one wants to hear. Layoffs. Mergers. Reorganizations. Projects
that get cancelled. Mandatory overtime. In these situations the
message is fixed. No amount of wordsmithing is going to make
hearing about a 10 percent reduction in your workforce sound or
feel better. Focus on the delivery.
DON’T send this message via voice mail, e-mail or Webcast. It
will be tempting, and I know you can build a case for both efficiency
and cost savings, but getting a message out isn’t the same as having
a message heard.
DO deliver the message in person (or deputize others to stand in
for you at various locations) so you can see your people and they can
see you. The only way you can come close to guarantee that an I-
don’t-want-to-hear-it message is received is to look into people’s eyes.
Be creative and be thoughtful. Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. If
you underestimate the criticality of delivering a consistently under-
stood message and verifying its reception, you’re going to have a
very long day.
Answering a question that’s just too personal
This one’s pretty short and sweet. Just because you’re a leader and
someone has asked you a question doesn’t mean you always have to
answer it. It is perfectly okay to establish some boundaries, usually
around your personal life, that you’re not willing to cross. As long
Don’t answer a question just
because it’s asked.
—Marilyn Mobley,
American PR specialist
as you afford others the same respect with regard to their own
boundaries and you let the people around you know about your lim-
its, you should be okay. All you need to say is, “That question falls
in an area that you already know I don’t discuss.”
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Tough or simple? Probably a little of both. Leadership is many
things, and on some days it’s hard. Delivering answers that fall into
the categories in this chapter isn’t fun. Most leaders, especially the
kind that would be reading this book, like to be open, approach-
able, and fun. Answering with “No, I can’t tell you,” or “You’re not
going to like to hear this” doesn’t qualify as open, approachable,
or fun. But there are times when they’re the right answer to give.
Recently I was part of a task force dealing with some sensitive
issues. At the end of our long, into-the-wee-hours-of-the-morning
meeting, we all agreed that the information and substance of our
conversation needed to be held in confidence until all the parties
involved could be notified. It was my job to deliver the messages the
Bromidic though it may sound,
some questions don’t have
answers, which is a terribly
difficult lesson to learn.
—Katharine Graham, American newspa-
per publisher
next morning. Imagine my dismay when I started to deliver those
messages and discovered that some of the individuals had already
heard, via the grapevine, the outcome of our deliberations.
My disappointment was not so much that the information was
leaked. That just made me mad. My disappointment stemmed from
the fact that my colleagues, people I considered leaders, didn’t know
how to answer a question that required a tough answer.
I’m sorry, we’ve agreed to keep the meetings confidential.
No, I can’t answer that.
You can ask me that several times, and my answer will still be the
I will give you that information as soon as it’s possible.
Leaders need to deliver a tough answer once in a while. I guess
it just takes practice.
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1. Which of the tough-answer situations in this chapter did you find
most compelling? Why?
2. What other types of answers would you find it difficult to deliver?
3. How would you deal with communicating those answers?
4. What is the one thing you want to remember most from this

answers for special situations

a look at special situations from a different
perspective. How about those times when you’re asked a
question and it’s your answer that’s a problem? In this chap-
ter we’ll look at a few of these situations.
The more you practice asking questions, welcoming
questions, and answering the questions that are asked of you,
the easier all this questioning business becomes. But there’s
always the question that throws you off your game, the ques-
tion you don’t know how to answer, or the question you just
don’t want to answer. What happens then? Reading this
chapter will give you some ideas, though not all the ideas—just
enough to help you to your own solutions.
During an interview on the Today show, Sir Ian McKellen was
asked about the lessons he learned from doing years of Shakespeare.
He replied simply, “Never underestimate the script.” That’s a good
lesson for leaders, too. Thinking about how you’d deal with the sit-
Questions are never indis-
creet. Answers sometimes are.
—Oscar Wilde, Irish writer
uations described in this chapter and how scripting an answer could
work for you (even if your script doesn’t quite reach the level of
Shakespeare) will boost your confidence as a leader who can answer
just about any question.

67. What’s happening?
The response to this question is less about completeness than it is
about frequency. In the midst of a crisis, leaders can have an unimag-
inable list of people competing for their time and attention. It
appears that the people on their teams often go to the bottom of the
list. I think this is a mistake. Your people will be patient and under-
standing because you have, of course, been straight with them before
this situation arose, but they need something to be patient and
understanding about.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you should wait until you’ve
gotten everything figured out or have a complete picture before
talking to your team. Frequent communication in settings where
they can physically see you is best. Even when there is nothing new
to say, visibility always works in your favor.
Take a deep breath before you talk. Calm yourself. Make good
eye contact. Let your feelings show appropriately. Finish by promis-
ing an update and KEEP YOUR PROMISE.
68. What’s going to happen next?
If you ignore the advice from the last question, you probably won’t
have to face this question. Not what I’d recommend, however.
When people ask What is coming next?, it is good news. This ques-
tion means they can see a little beyond the immediate, and it is usu-
ally an indication that you’ve been doing a good job of answering
the What’s happening? question.
At any given time during a crisis, you may or may not have an
answer to this question. That’s okay. Just continue to tell what you
know and what you can tell when you can tell it. Make the time of
your next update common public knowledge and keep it, even if you
have nothing new to add. Be visible. When you see some future pos-
sibilities that you can share, do so. Label them as speculation or
good bets or whatever term actually describes their probability. If
they become more probable, announce that. If they fade as possi-
bilities, announce that.
Three things a leader can do wrong during a crisis are to disap-
pear, to start and then stop communications, and to make promises
in the heat of the moment that they can’t keep later. Practice not
doing these three things when there isn’t a crisis, and you’ll do okay
when there is.
69. What’s going to happen to me?
This is a question that is asked but not vocalized, so you may have
to bring it up yourself. In any crisis people look closest to home first.
That’s nothing to be ashamed of—it comes from the survival instinct
in all of us. But sometimes, when we realized we’ve stopped think-
ing about the big picture and have focused on our own situation, we
feel guilty.
As a leader you need to remember that people are thinking about
the effect on their own lives even though that might not be what
they’re saying. You might have to say it for them. You might have
to bring up a question you know you can’t answer. How’s that for
walking out on a limb voluntarily?
The same issues we explored for the last two answers apply here.
Just because you don’t know the complete answer doesn’t mean you
can give an answer and promise more information as it becomes
available. Remember to keep your promises, however, or none of the
good will you had before the crisis will last.
70. Am I going to have a job next month?
Questions during a crisis are less about facts and more about emo-
tions. This question comes straight from the gut, not the head. Most
leaders I’ve watched acted as if it were just the opposite. When they
ignore the emotions and speak only to the facts, they lose their team
or their audience. That’s why Yes is such a tempting answer for a
leader and why leaders are tempted to use it when it doesn’t apply.
Nowhere is that more obvious than when it comes to job security.
As much as you’d like to be able to answer this question with a yes,
don’t do it unless you are 100 percent certain.
Of course, not much in today’s world is 100 percent certain, so
your answer to this question is apt to be closer to I don’t know, and
there are some comments about that answer in the next chapter. But
you’re in front of your team right now and don’t have time to page
through a book to find a formula for success. (Don’t bother looking
for one. In this kind of situation, formulas don’t exist.) Think of it
this way. What would you want to hear in this situation? A forthright
I don’t know or a lot of fancy words and phrases used to obscure the
fact that what is being delivered is no answer at all?
Maybe there is a formula after all. Don’t ignore the emotions
you’re dealing with. Tell the truth, sincerely and frequently. Update
as promised in clear and simple language. Don’t make promises you
can’t keep. Keep the promises you do make, and stay visible. Don’t
shy away from the emotions; learn to deal with them. You’ll be a bet-
ter leader for it.
71. What’s the long-term impact of this crisis?
By the time this question is asked, the immediate crisis has proba-
bly faded. This question becomes the basis for dialogue about the
future. As a leader, you want to avoid the position of just being a
dispenser of wisdom most of the time. During a crisis it is appro-
priate for you to be an answerer; now that the crisis has passed, it
is time for you to encourage your team members to search for their
own answers.
Answering a question with a question can be seen as evasive—and
it often is. But when this technique is used judiciously, it can be quite
effective in bringing groups together to think. Review the following
dialogue to see this technique in action.
“What’s the long term impact for us, boss?”
“Actually I’m thankful that we’ve got enough breath-
ing space to ask about long-term anything. From what
you’ve seen and heard, what do you think?”
“I haven’t heard much, everybody’s keeping a pretty
low profile, but I did see some new orders being pro-
cessed. That’s got to be a good sign, doesn’t it?”
“I think so, too. Why don’t we get the team together
and share what everyone’s been hearing, and then I’ll
let you know what I’ve been told. Maybe together we
can start to build a picture of the future.”

72–73. What’s going to change? What’s going to
happen to my job?
Some questions that come up during mergers and acquisitions are
pretty easy to answer if you’re willing to face people who won’t be
happy with the answer. The answer to these questions falls into that
category. This won’t be a one-time conversation; what you’re about
to read is a very abbreviated version of a real conversation, but it
should give you some insights into the role you’re going to play.
“What’s going to change?” or “What’s going to happen
to my job?”
“Why don’t you count on everything changing.”
“You’re kidding, right? It’s all not going to change. It
couldn’t possibly do that.”
“I know we’d all like to believe that not much will
change, but my experience is that in situations like
ours, change becomes the norm.”
“I hate change.”
“You’re not the only one. I like to keep in mind that while
change is often hard, it can also be exciting. When I look
back, some of the toughest changes in my life turned out
to be times of growth and new opportunities.”
“Yeah, but it’s still hard.”
“Yeah, it’s hard. Let’s keep talking. We’ll be going
through it together.”
Leading people during times of change demands that a leader get
smart about how change affects people. Like other questions in this
book, these questions are all about emotions, not facts and figures.
If you try to answer them with facts and figures, you’ll miss the real
point of the question. Helping people sort through their emotions
is tough and probably wasn’t covered in your job training.
If you’re not developing your expertise around how people react
to change, this would be a perfect time to start. Change sneaks up
on you when you least expect it.
74. Who will be my leader?
This is a flattering question depending on the nonverbal behaviors
that go with its delivery. As a successful leader, you’re allowed to
bask in the warm feeling that this question conjures up for a few sec-
onds before you proceed to answer it. Time’s up.
In Creating You & Co., William Bridges suggests that “ Job secu-
rity no longer resides in a job (any job). It resides in your ability to
add value to what some organization does….” Try reading it with a
few words changed. Job security no longer resides in a boss (any
boss). It resides in your ability to lead yourself in a way that adds value
to what some organization does. Great leaders work with the mem-
bers of their teams to help them develop their own leadership skills.
Like good consultants and good parents, these leaders aim to
work themselves out of a job. They know that if they lead with this
attitude, their team will always value their leadership just as the con-
sultant will have clients that want them back and the parents will
have adult children who will always value their opinion. Leaders of
the old school—command-and-control types—are shortchanging
the people they lead and, ironically, themselves. They’ll never expe-
rience the joy of watching someone they’ve coached succeed on
their own. They’ll never get to marvel at the moment when the stu-
dent outpaces the teacher, and they’ll be poorer for it.
If you’ve never thought about this before, use this question as a
wake-up call. You need to review how you’re preparing your people
to lead themselves or transition to another leader. You need to help
your team own their values, their work, and their success.
If you’ve done your homework, Who’s going to be my leader? will
be an easy question to answer. Nothing’s going to change; you’ll keep
leading yourself.
75. Will our values last?
My guess is that you won’t be able to answer this question, but you
ought to be very glad someone asked it. Leaders help establish,
shape, and nurture organizational values. A leader who goes home
at night knowing their team lived their values that day has done the
job of a leader well. But values are fragile things. When they are
ignored or talked about but not practiced, they revert to words on
a page rather than guides to make decisions by.
People in organizations that have gone through mergers or
acquisitions will recount stories that reveal that integrating systems
is much easier than combining cultures. Mismatched values, oppo-
site views of the future, or competing styles of leadership can be
insurmountable obstacles to success.
So, what’s a leader to say when asked this question? How does a
leader nurture hope when it seems in short supply? By being authen-
tic. Authentic means saying, “I don’t know.” Authentic means shar-
ing your feelings and saying, “I worry about that, too.” Authentic
means being brave during change: “This is hard for all of us.”
Authentic means hanging in there: “I promise I’ll be here with you
tomorrow.” Authentic means keeping your team focused: “During
this time of change, let’s build our reputation as a team by focusing
on our customers.” Authentic means being a leader.

76–78. What will the organization do to sup-
port me? What are my benefits? What
will this mean for my career?
Up to this point, we’ve explored questions leaders need to ask and
answer. We haven’t looked at any questions leaders should not
answer. Now is the time, and these three questions are perfect exam-
ples of questions leaders shouldn’t answer by themselves.
Visualize a briefing after a plane crash. The chief investigator
from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is behind
the microphone giving an overview of the work the investigators
have done so far. A reporter asks a technical question about a report
of wind shear experienced by other pilots in the same airspace the
day of the crash. The chief investigator listens intently and says, “Let
me call John up to answer. John is our wind shear expert and I know
he’s been looking into that.” The leader steps aside and John takes
over. When that question is answered, the leader returns to the
lectern and takes the next question. At several points during the
briefing, the leader defers to others on his team who have the spe-
cialized knowledge to answer the question asked.
As you visualized this event, did you ever have a problem with
the leader’s credibility? I doubt that you did or would. Smart lead-
ers know what they know and, even more importantly, they know
what they don’t know. When faced with questions outside their
expertise, they don’t make things up, they don’t promise things that
might make sense on the surface but have serious consequences they
can’t envision, and they don’t brush off the question. They bring for-
ward people with specialized expertise, or they know how to con-
nect the questioner with the expert in a hurry.
Most of your situations won’t involve press conferences and
reporters clamoring for answers. Questions like the ones that can
arise during an employee’s personal crisis occur during one-on-one
time where the temptation to answer a question in order to help
someone in a time of need will be strong. You must resist the temp-
tation. People in crisis will cling to any answers and promises, and
if you’ve given one that your organization either can’t or won’t ful-
fill, you’re in trouble.
These are questions that need to be answered by your human
resources professionals, sometimes by your legal council, or by peo-
ple within your organization who have the appropriate expertise. If
you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) program, they can
help. The key to answering employees’ questions when they’re in
the midst of a personal crisis is to know your limitations, know the
kind of support your employees can find elsewhere in your organi-
zation, and take the responsibility for finding the professional who
can help effectively.
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It is important that you give careful answers to the questions asked
of you in these special situations. When you’re on the receiving end
of the questions, there are a few behaviors to practice and remem-
ber. Look for opportunities to role-play your answers and find ways
to get feedback as you work on and develop your answering skills.
1. Engage your brain before you open your mouth. Most people
are uncomfortable with silence, so they rush to fill it. Resist.
Give yourself permission to think first and answer second.
2. If the answer is I don’t know, say I don’t know. Don’t ever
make things up because your ego thinks leaders are sup-
posed to have the answer to everything. (There is more
about an I don’t know answer in Chapter 8.)
The uncreative mind can spot
wrong answers, but it takes a
creative mind to spot wrong
—Sir Antony Jay, British writer
3. Make sure you understand the question before you answer
it. Repeating a question or asking for clarification is a good
idea. While the question is being clarified, you also get a
few more minutes to frame your answer.
4. When you’ve finished your answer, make sure you check with
the questioner and find out if you’ve actually answered their
question. If you get a yes, you can move on. If you get a no or
a questioning look, you need to continue the dialogue.
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1. What special situations in Chapter 7 did you find most compelling?
2. What other special situations do you face?
3. What questions do you need to answer in those situations?
4. How will you answer those questions?
5. What one thing do you most want to remember from this chapter?

questions leaders need to answer

it that in today’s chaotic business environment,
many still cling to the belief that having a mediocre answer
is better than having a good question? Why is it that after
millions of books on leadership have been purchased (and
hopefully some have actually been read), people expect lead-
ers to tell rather than ask? I don’t know, but I can live with
not knowing.
For the last several years I’ve made it my business to
become comfortable being the one who always asks ques-
tions. I can’t pinpoint what caused me to change my focus
from expert answerer to skilled questioner, but I can report on the
results. People think I’m smarter, more insightful, and nicer. This
chapter is an attempt to help you, a leader, to become a better ques-
tioner. The first part of this book has provided the opportunity to
learn and practice questions you can use to become known in your
organization as a different kind of leader. Now I’d like you to think
about answering questions. It occurs to me that after reading this,
you might have a question for me. “Chris, just as you convinced me
that the role of the leader is about asking good questions, now you’re
saying that I have to have the answers. I’m confused.” I’m tempted
to push your buttons and remind you that a moment of great con-
fusion is often the springboard for great creativity and learning, but
I won’t. I’ll answer instead.
There is a difference between leaders who spend their time
telling people what to do, think, or feel and leaders who create an
environment where followers ask thoughtful questions and the lead-
ers know which ones they should answer. The more questions you
ask, the more questions you should expect. This is a good time to
add to your skill set.
People will ask you, with varying motives, the question What do
you think? A moment’s thought before answering this question is a
good idea. If it is more important for the questioner to state their
opinions and understanding, the leader will answer with another
question: More importantly, what do you think? This technique isn’t
about evading a question; it’s about challenging the questioner to
express themselves in an area of their responsibility and expertise.
On the other hand, if the What do you think? question is a genuine
attempt to learn a point of view or tap into a wealth of expertise, the astute leader will answer, adopting the role of educator.
This chapter is designed to help you think through questions that
you as a leader may be asked to answer. They’re not all the ques-
tions you’ll be asked. In fact, they’re questions seldom asked in most
workplaces. These are questions that go beyond the superficial; they
ask, in effect, “Who are you and why should I follow you?” They’re
questions about values and concerns. They have underlying mes-
Questions bring us back to
human contact.
—Dorothy Leeds,
communications consultant
sages; people will have a hard time asking them. Don’t kid yourself.
Even though people haven’t asked them out loud, they’ve asked
these questions silently and determined an answer for you as they
watched your behavior. By creating a questioning culture, you’ll
have the opportunity to actually answer them yourself.
But, even more important, these are significant questions you
should be asking yourself. Take the challenge!
51. What do you see happening in our organi-
zation over the next twelve months?
It’s the vision thing. In my favorite leadership book, The Leadership
Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, the authors
remind leaders that it is their job to imagine things for their orga-
nizations that are beyond the ordinary. That’s why people ask this
kind of question. It is their attempt to understand, clarify, and get
excited about their future. If they can’t get an answer from their
leaders, they feel lost, adrift, and frightened.
I’ve sat in more leadership team meetings than I care to remem-
ber during which the leaders asserted how impossible it was for
them to answer this question. Their excuses were many. “The
things that are happening are confidential.” “Once we get things
turned around, we’ll have time for this philosophy stuff.” “The
competition is killing us; we may not have a future.” “We don’t have
a clue.” These are the responses of leaders who are using their titles
under false pretenses. Even with the constraints of confidentiality,
can’t you say something? How will you turn things around if you
don’t know what direction you’re facing? Why shouldn’t we engage
our entire team in dialogue to help us understand and beat the
competition? How can you not have a clue? Leaders have to talk
about the future. All the time. At every opportunity.
What happens during your leadership team meetings? Maybe
it’s time for you to discuss this question together. Whether you’re
the team leader or a member, bring it up for conversation. If you
lead from the middle of the organization, gather your peers and
talk. Too often, everyone assumes that these issues are the respon-
sibility of the organization’s real leader. Nothing is further from
the truth. Real leaders exist at all levels of the organization, and
the visions they have need to be part of the ongoing dialogue
about the future.
After you have become known as a leader who thinks, talks, and
cares about the future, start turning this question back to the peo-
ple who ask it of you. Help them understand that they help the orga-
nization and themselves when they share what they know from their
unique perspective.
It will not undermine your credibility as a leader if you talk about
your vision for the future based on what you know today and revise
your view when circumstances change—as long as you include the
changing circumstances along with your revised vision for the
future. It will enhance your credibility as a leader if you identify the
unshakable values that will guide your own and the organization’s
behavior, no matter what the future brings. It will focus and uplift
your organization if you talk about things beyond the ordinary each
time this question is asked.
52. What is the future of our industry?
I’ve always understood the expression “Can’t see the forest for the
trees.” It wasn’t till I moved to northern Wisconsin that I realized
not everyone does understand it. It’s easy, in this land of wonderful
woods, to miss the beautiful expanse as you focus on one scruffy
pine—wondering why someone hasn’t pruned it. The same thing
happens at work.
People get caught in the daily cycle of “Write the to-do list, work
on the to-do list,” and get frustrated by how many things remain on
the to-do list at the end of the day. It would be silly to expect that
cycle to be anything but a permanent part of our work life. There
will always be more tasks than there is time. There will always be
interruptions that usually end up dumping more tasks on our desks.
Fast isn’t fast enough. Remember when you could blame things on
the post office? Overnight delivery services, fax machines, and e-
mail technologies have changed forever what we mean when we say,
“I’ll do it right away.” More than ever, we need someone to help us
break the cycle of tasks and encourage us to see beyond the day-to-
day. Leaders are those people.
Most employees don’t have the opportunity to attend trade
association meetings or have access to and the time to read indus-
try forecasts, but they need the information obtained by doing
both. That’s where you come in. As a leader it is your job to
understand the bigger picture. How does your organization fit
into your industry? How do you rank against your competition?
What changes are affecting the way you and your competition will
do business in the future? You need to know these things in order
to make wise decisions and chart a course into the future. The
people at all levels of your organization need to know these
things, too. They need to know so they have a better context for
understanding management decisions. So they can help customers
understand changes in policies and practices. So they can think
about their own future. So they have hope.
People get so focused on the task in front of them (the next
deadline, the next round of budget cuts) that they seldom lift their
heads to look at the big picture. It is in the bigger picture that we
can find the hope that will lift us out of daily despair. If you want
to call yourself a leader, you should know about the bigger picture,
so talk about it.
53. What gets you excited about the future?
Have you ever known anyone who’s had a brush with death? People’s
reactions vary, but most often they seem to walk away from the expe-
rience vowing to make every minute count. They realize there are
no guarantees when it comes to the future, and that’s okay as long
as they are taking advantage of the present. They greet each piece
of the future they’re given with joy for the opportunity to experi-
ence it. They are excited on purpose. Leaders have a responsibility
to show people how to view the future with excitement without hav-
ing to cope with a near-death experience.
So, what does get you excited about the future? I remember sit-
ting at the dinner table as a child with my brother, mom, and dad.
Our family was, in so many ways, a TV family of the ‘60s. We had
dinner together almost every night and talked about all sorts of
things. Every time a conversation got mired in a problem, my dad
would express his faith that “in the future, technology will fix that.”
I am not a teacher, I am an
—Robert Frost, American poet
Keep in mind that this was in 1964, before eight-tracks, cassettes,
and CDs—before handheld calculators, dumb terminals, and lap-
tops. The princess phone was the latest thing in telephone technol-
ogy, and if you had a color TV, you were the envy of just about
everyone else. It wasn’t that my dad was seeing new technology
every day. He had just seen enough of the things that were on the
drawing boards to marvel at what might happen next. His belief that
technology could solve any problem may sound naive, but he was
excited about the possibilities. He eagerly read the paper, watched
the news, and talked to the people connected with emerging tech-
nologies so he could learn. He was energized when he thought about
the future.
What does that for you? There are so many people who believe
that excitement about the future is a sign of cerebral ineptitude while
cynicism marks the intellectual. Oh, please. Cynicism is the mark of
a person who spends their time ignoring all the reasons that the uni-
verse provides, on a daily basis, for hope and renewal. There are
many positions to take between Pollyanna and Dilbert. Leaders
need to find their position and talk about what fires them up when
they think of tomorrow.
54. How do you learn about our customers?
Several years ago, one of the airlines aired a TV commercial that
told the story of a leader who gathered his team around a table to
announce that one of their oldest clients had just called and fired
them. As he handed out plane tickets, he told the team that they
were going to visit their customers face-to-face and reconnect with
them. “What about you, boss?” asked one of the team members.
“Me,” he said pulling a ticket out of his back pocket, “I’m going to
visit that old client who just fired us.” It was a powerful commercial.
I think of it often.
Some leaders wouldn’t recognize a customer if they bumped into
one. Pity. There is a contradiction if you ask the people in your
organization about your customers without having any firsthand
experiences to add to the conversation. Hearing stories secondhand
isn’t the same as talking to a real live customer who’s frustrated by
the failure of one of your products. It isn’t the same as seeing how
your services enable another entire organization’s processes. It
doesn’t match the relationships developed with customers over time.
There are leaders, of course, who do work to create opportuni-
ties to interact with their customers. Unfortunately, those relation-
ships are often limited to the largest customers or those customers
who have complained loudly enough or demanded emphatically
enough to get an audience with a leader. These contacts, desirable
as they are, do not provide a clear enough picture. What’s a leader
to do? Here’s an idea—and a challenge.
Pull out your organization chart and identify twelve areas where
you haven’t had, or don’t have, much occasion to interact with cus-
tomers, and make it your plan to spend time with a person in one of
those areas each month for the next twelve months. Spend the day
with an installer. Listen in with a customer services representative.
Make some sales calls, clean bathrooms with a janitor, and review
financials with an accountant. Listen to their customer interactions.
See your policies and procedures in action. Ask questions to deter-
mine how many of your experiences that day are typical. Experience
for yourself the needs and concerns of your customers. Get smart.
The next time you sit in a leadership team meeting, think of all
you’ll have to say!
P.S. Don’t forget to send thank-you notes.
55. How do you know what I do in my job?
I’m often hired to do skill-building workshops for frontline employ-
ees. The particular skill doesn’t seem to matter; the same question
is asked by participants, “Are you doing this program for our man-
agers/leaders?” Usually the answer is no, but I’ve come to believe
that their question isn’t grounded in a concern about the skill set of
the leadership team. It’s grounded in the concern of many people
that their leaders are clueless about what they do on a daily basis.
They believe that the people who make decisions that affect their
daily lives have no idea what their daily lives are all about.
Let’s face it. Leaders have access to (almost) unlimited support
possibilities. They control budgets and assignments. They get the
latest technology, the best bathrooms, and preferred parking. Now,
don’t get defensive—these statements might not apply to you, but I
bet there are people in your organization who believe they’re true.
Perception becomes reality, remember? In all fairness, it’s important
to say that most people in your organization don’t have the foggiest
notion of what you do every day either.
What’s a leader to do? Here’s an idea—and a challenge. (Some of
it may seem familiar from the last question, but read carefully. There
are some subtle differences.)
Look at your organization chart and identify twelve areas where
you haven't had, or don't have, much occasion to interact with employ-
ees, and make it your plan to spend time with a person in each of
those areas each month for the next twelve months. Spend the day
with an installer. Listen in with a customer services representative.
Make some sales calls, clean bathrooms with a janitor, and review
financials with an accountant. Listen to their customer interactions.
See your policies and procedures in action and the effect they have
on workflow, the quality of work life, and productivity. Experience
one of their days. Ask questions to determine how many of your
experiences that day are typical. Experience for yourself the needs
and concerns of your employees. Get smart about them.
Don’t stop there. Pick another area each month, and invite some-
one in your organization to spend the day with you. Ask them to
shadow you through meetings, phone calls, and lunch. Encourage
them to ask questions and answer them honestly. Help them get
smart about leadership.
56. How can I advance in our organization?
Have you ever listened to the radio station WIIFM? I’m surprised
if you haven’t. It has the power to broadcast all over the world, and
my experience, both personal and professional, leads me to believe
that everyone tunes in to this station—sooner rather than later.
WIIFM stands for What’s In It For Me. Get it?
Face it, we all run ideas, decisions, and problems through the fil-
ter that answers the question How will this affect me? When we can
estimate the effect, even if it’s not positive, we can move into action.
When we can’t figure out what’s going on, we often find ourselves
paralyzed by the fear of the unknown. This question is an attempt
to understand an important workplace process.
Promotions within an organization are often quite mysterious.
It appears that some people rise quickly based on who they know
with little regard to what they know. Some talented, smart people
appear to be overlooked, and sometimes a good guy wins the pro-
motional lottery. It’s hard to figure out if promotions are based on
skills, personality, or hat size. Jobs are posted and filled on the same
day. No wonder people are confused. You need to help clear up the
confusion by talking about the answer to this question.
First of all, do your homework. How are people chosen for
promotion? Does your organization use their values as a primary
screening tool for advancement, or does job-specific competency
supersede all other considerations? Are your policies adminis-
tered uniformly, or are they bent on a regular basis? Does who you
know matter more than what you know? Once you have a clear
picture of your current reality and implement any changes that
you may decide are necessary, start composing your response to
this question.
I believe that there are three parts to a promotion decision. Your
answer should cover all three.
1. What skills does this person bring to the job? Every posi-
tion needs technical competencies in both the hard- and
soft-skill areas. People must understand that they need to
take charge of their own skill development if they want pro-
motional opportunities within the organization. You need
to help them discover what skill sets the organization
expects for a successful future.
2. What behaviors does this person exhibit in their current
position? Jobs are not just about getting the task done;
they’re about how you go about getting the job done, too.
People need to understand that their ability to work effec-
tively on a team, offer creative ideas, and learn continuously
will affect their promotional opportunities within the orga-
nization. You need to help them match their behaviors with
the organization’s values.
3. What attitudes does this person bring to work every day?
Organizational attitudes are the composite of the attitudes
of all people who work there. People need to understand
that most often, attitudes are an initial screening device for
promotion. You need to ensure that all employees are given
feedback regularly, not just once a year at review time,
about how their attitudes are perceived throughout the
57. How do you make decisions?
After a fifteen-year on-again, off-again quest, I found a copy of a
book I remember from my early childhood, I Decided. Rereading it
after more years than I care to share with you, the story was just as
I remembered. A little girl goes shopping with her mother and is
allowed to pick one toy. She weighs her options, thinks through the
possibilities, and makes an informed decision. She can’t wait for her
father to come home from work so she can tell him about her choice.
I loved that book and made my mother read it over and over until I
could read it for myself. It described my decision-making process to
a T. Have you ever thought about how you make decisions? Before
you can answer this question and explain your decision-making pro-
cess to someone else, it might be helpful to spend some time review-
ing exactly how you do make decisions.
The employees who ask you (or who would ask you if they
thought they could), How do you make decisions? are trying to under-
stand what goes on behind the scenes so they can better understand
the decisions you make. They will learn to make better independent
decisions if you help them envision the kinds of things you consider
as you make decisions. You could share what kinds of decisions are
hard for you and which ones are easy. You could share with them
how you gather data as well as how much data you gather before you
feel confident of the facts behind an issue. You could let them know
under what circumstances you go with your gut feeling and when
you need logic to prevail. You could share how you decide who you
go to in order to bounce ideas and possible solutions around.
You could, if you’re really brave, talk about bad decisions you’ve
made and how you came to make them. Even better, you could talk
about how you learned from a bad decision and how you changed
your decision-making behavior because of it. You could ask the per-
son questioning you how they make decisions and what they’ve
learned about decision-making in their previous jobs. You could
assure them that organizations are stronger when different people
employ many different ways of making decisions as long as every-
one does their homework before they decide. You could challenge
them to become better decision-makers.
I could lend you my copy of I Decided.
58. How do you take time to think?
This question can be tricky if your answer is I don’t or I’ve heard of
people who try something like this. How do you find time to think? Not
to solve problems or put out fires, but just to think about things both
big and small. I know, I know: you’re so busy every day there’s never
any time for quiet reflection. Maybe on your next vacation? This is
the worst form of self-deception leaders can engage in. If the leader
isn’t stepping away from the day-to-day activities in their part of the
business to think, who is? Ignoring the need for thinking allows
seemingly healthy, active businesses to fail because of the change
they never saw coming…until it was too late. Please don’t fall into
that trap—it’s awfully hard to get yourself out. Here are six sugges-
tions to help you find time to think. After you’ve practiced them for
a while, you can use them, with assurance in your voice, to answer
this question.
1. Make an appointment with yourself. This is the least you
can do, so before another week goes by, do it! Schedule a
thirty-minute, hold-my-calls, can’t-be-changed meeting
with yourself and keep it. During these thirty minutes,
think. Don’t write, read magazines, or clean your desk.
Think. It would be great if you could do it with your office
door open. Don’t let people interrupt. Tell them you’re
thinking and you’ll get back to them shortly.
2. Take a walk. A short fifteen- to twenty-minute walk at an
almost brisk pace will provide a great thinking environ-
ment. Since this is a short burst of thinking, why not try it
with a question in mind? Not a day-to-day problem,
although this works well for that, too, but a general I need
to think about that some day issue. Here are some possible
topics that fit this technique.

What’s changing in our environment that we haven’t
thought about?

What new skills will our team need in the next year?

What barriers exist to our team’s success this quarter?
3. Do your daily exercise routine without distractions.
Distractions are a room full of people talking, your favorite
morning or evening news show, or the video of last night’s
episode of The West Wing. As you work out, let your mind
wander and follow where it goes. Thinking is an amazing
process that requires relinquishing control and enjoying the
journey to insight. Distractionless exercise is a great oppor-
tunity to experience it.
4. Listen to Mozart. As I write this, the Mozart at Midnight
CD is playing in the background. Read the book The Mozart
Effect by Don Campbell for all the research, but take it from
me—Mozart helps you think. You can turn flying time into
thinking time if you carry earphones and Mozart with you.
5. Engage in a hobby that you enjoy and that requires repet-
itive movement with your hands. Here are a few I can think
of that work: Woodworking. Knitting. Gardening.
Painting. Playing an instrument. Golf could work if you did
it alone. Hiking, again if you’re alone and if you swing your
arms as you go. Ironing. (Please don’t spread this one
around.) Any of those strike your fancy? It’s the repetitive
nature of the hand movements that seems to trigger cre-
ative thinking. If you don’t currently do any of these or any-
thing else that fits the criteria, try one. Don’t worry—when
you find the right thing for you, you’ll know immediately.
6. Take a field trip. Go to a museum, an art gallery, or a
library. Visit a mall, sit in a competitor’s parking lot, or fly
a kite. Do it by yourself or take a colleague. At the end of
your excursion ask yourself, What did I see or experience today
that taught me something about my work or my life? Don’t push
for the answer, but don’t give up too quickly. There’s always
something there; you just need to think till you find it.
All of these ideas require two things: the courage to try them and
tell others what you’re doing, and paper and pencil to jot down the
great thoughts that will surface. Be careful—this thinking stuff can
become contagious. I guarantee it.
59. What makes you angry in the workplace?
My friend Kathryn Jeffers wrote a book called Don’t Kill the
Messenger: How to Avoid the Dangers of Workplace Conflict. In the
Introduction, she paraphrases Aristotle’s words on anger. He
believed that anyone can become angry, but to be angry with the
right person, to the right degree, for the right purpose, and in the
right way, is not easy. If you know how to be angry with the right
person, to the right degree, for the right purpose, and in the right
way, and if you have asked three people who care enough about you
to tell the truth for verification of your skill set, skip the rest of this
question. If not, read on.
Anger in the workplace is a tricky thing. It is most often mis-
used, misdirected, and misunderstood. Most of us are not com-
fortable dealing with raw emotions. We get uncomfortable with
glad, sad, and mad and go to great lengths to avoid them. We
haven’t been educated to react appropriately when we’re either the
giver or the receiver of these emotions. Learning to understand,
control, and utilize conflict in a positive way takes commitment,
practice, and hard work.
Unfortunately, leaders often think they are exempt from the
commitment, practice, and hard work it takes to make anger a tool
rather than an outburst. In many organizations, the stories about a
leader’s rage are legendary, and they’re usually not stories with
happy endings. It is highly unlikely that you or any other members
on your leadership team will succeed by using anger as a manage-
ment tool. If you or one of your colleagues uses anger or rage as a
technique, this would be a great time to stop it.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t think about or talk about
what makes you angry. Even though you may pride yourself on
containing your anger (trust me on this), people around you know
when you’re angry. Knowing what makes you angry is helpful for
both you and the people around you.
Several years ago I realized that having to go over information
or instructions people had already agreed upon made the hair on the
back of my neck stand up. All of my ability to help a learner learn,
and my ability to keep calm and display infinite patience, disap-
peared. When people ask me to go over old agreements, my jaw
clenches, my breathing gets shallow, and I start talking in short,
clipped sentences. I don’t yell, rant, or rave. The effect, however, is
the same. People know I’m angry, and I know they don’t know why.
This is my problem, as anger so often is, and I’ve learned that let-
ting people know what’s happening to me—and that it isn’t their
fault—is helpful for both of us. So, answer this question. It will be
good for you and for others!
60. How do you measure success?
Recently, four of us gathered around a table to play cards. Of the
four, one knew all the rules, two knew some of the rules, and the
fourth thought she’d played the game once in her life. We played a
practice hand to give everyone the opportunity to get a feel for the
rules, and then we began playing the game for real. Several rounds
into the game, our expert played a winning card. We looked at her
with blank stares, and she said, “Oh, I guess I forget to tell you about
this move.” You can imagine our indignation and the discussion that
followed about her winning hand. We’ve all felt that way at one time
or another. We wanted to win, we were playing by the rules, and
then someone told us that we really didn’t know the whole story.
Success wasn’t an illusion; it was just a little different from what we
were led to believe. (Just in case you’re wondering, she won the hand
but didn’t win the game.)
Success can be a very elusive commodity, especially when you
don’t know what success is. One would think that if an organization
has a set of values, it would be pretty easy to figure out what the rules
of success are. If your values say the customer is number one, you’ll
want to consider the customer’s needs and wants in everything you
do. If respect for people is high on your organization’s values list,
you’ll want to work on relationships as you get your job done. And
if your organization lives their stated values, you’ll be right. But not
all organizations do what they say.
Leaders have three choices when they want to answer this ques-
tion. They can review the organization’s values with the questioner
and help clarify the specific behaviors that match the stated values.
They can apologize that they haven’t done their job as a leader and
get to work on a set of values that are meaningful for their situation.
Or they can change either their existing values or their behavior if
the two don’t currently match. No matter which of these three
options fits your situation, you’ve got to get the message out to
everyone: “This is how we play the game.” No fair slipping in a rule
or two later.
61. What are you learning?
In a recent interview on the Today show, the musician Jon Bon Jovi
told Matt Lauer how much he enjoyed working as an actor with
Matthew McConaughey on the movie U-571. As an inexperienced
actor, Bon Jovi looked to McConaughey as a leader and wasn’t dis-
appointed. Bon Jovi said that it wasn’t what McConaughey said but
what he did that helped him. Leaders teach by example whether they
know they’re doing it or not. Do you remember the first time an
adult said to you, “Do as I say, not as I do”? Did it strike you as
ridiculous at the time? If it didn’t then, it certainly should now. Your
development as a leader won’t go very far if you don’t learn this les-
son. People inside and outside of your organization will learn more
from you about leadership, for good or ill, from what you do than
from what you say.
Learning about learning is a hot topic in many workplaces.
Businesses in general have reached the conclusion that if they’re not
learning about their customers, themselves, and their future on a
daily basis they’re losing the race. I’ve observed many management
team meetings where leaders have discussed learning strategies and
opportunities for their people to get smarter. I haven’t listened in on
conversations where they’ve challenged each other and reported on
their personal learning goals. And that’s a problem. People will
believe that learning is part of their job in your organization by
watching whether or not you’re learning.
So, let’s talk about what you’re learning. I hope you can answer
this question with two things in mind. First is that you’d be excited
to share the skill you’re learning that will make you better at doing
your job. It would be great if you could also share how you’re learn-
ing. Is it a formal process or a self-study situation? You would tell
how you were taking what you’ve learned and practiced and applied
it in a real-life situation. You would be willing to share how you
might have failed as you tried new skills and how you appreciated
the feedback you got from others as you practiced. You would look
and sound excited as you described how this learning was making
your work easier, more efficient, and more fun.
Then, you would move on to telling us about what you were
learning in your personal life. Your face would light up as you
described your movement into uncharted waters. Who your teacher
was. How often you got to practice what you were learning. How
you realized that this personal learning was giving you insights about
your business situation—an unexpected bonus. How something
could be frustrating and fun at the same time.
After a conversation like this, I’d know you were a lifelong
learner and I’d be challenged. Way to go, leader!
62. How do you stay positive?
I’d like you to try a little experiment. Remember the first day of your
first real job. What happened that caused you to hide the expression
on your face so no one else could see the silly grin that spread from
ear to ear? Remember what triggered the response and what the
response felt like.
Cynicism is a disease that is pervasive in our society and, like a
cancer, it holds the possibility of our death. Listen to people in your
workplace talking about a new hire. “Did you see the new kid in
accounting? Grinning from ear to ear, filled with new ways to fix all
our problems.” “Yeah, what a hoot! Don’t worry, just give him a
month, and this place will wipe that grin off his face.”
Variations of that conversation get repeated over coffee in organi-
zations from coast to coast and I’ve never heard of one incident of a
leader who has walked over and said, “Excuse me, but don’t ever let
me hear something like that again! In our organization we want peo-
ple to join us all fired-up about the possibilities and to stay that way
for their entire career. And, by the way, if you don’t feel excitement
about what you do here on a daily basis, maybe your résumé needs
dusting off!” Can you see yourself delivering that message? I hope so.
In order to deliver that message convincingly, you need to be
enthusiastic about your job and show it. Not necessarily in big ways,
but in small, consistent ways. Body language, tone of voice, expres-
sions of glee, and expressions of concern are all ways people make
judgments about how you’re feeling about your job. Leaders who
are excited about what they’re doing on a daily basis create envi-
ronments where cynicism has a hard time taking root.
As a leader, you are not, however, expected to be up all the time;
you do get to be human. Discouraged, tired, and frustrated hap-
pen to all of us. You do need to have strategies to make your own
attitude adjustments and, upon occasion, do them publicly. A lot
to ask of a leader, isn’t it? Just remember, it’s why they pay you the
big bucks.
63. How do you re-ignite your enthusiasm for
your job?
Everyone gets down in the dumps. The trick is not to stay there.
Especially when you’re the leader. So, how do you re-ignite your
enthusiasm? I call my grandson Quinn. At the time I’m writing this
he’s twenty-one months old, and his favorite word is WOW! (The
caps and the exclamation mark are deliberate—you can hear them
both in his voice.) When I call, no matter what day, what time, my
son Paul says, “Quinn, do you want to talk to Grandma?” I can
hear him running to the phone saying “WOW!” I really wouldn’t
need the conversation (and truth be told, at twenty-one months it
isn’t much of a conversation) to go on. My spirit is lifted from
whatever pushed it down by a simple word delivered with enthu-
siasm, “WOW!”
What about you? Do you take a walk around the plant? Substitute
a session at the gym for lunch? Meditate? Pray? Call your mother or
your favorite uncle? See, it doesn’t matter what you do. It does mat-
ter that you have something that you know will work, that you do
right away. Something you can do without thinking, and that works
about 98 percent of the time. Something that doesn’t take much time,
expense, or equipment. Because you’re the leader. Your team needs
you to be enthusiastic. It’s a big part of your job.
Please don’t relegate this to some of that silly “Life is just a bowl
of cherries” nonsense foisted on a gullible population by overpaid
motivational speakers. This is about hope, an overlooked attribute
that should be a leader’s stock-in-trade. Leaders owe their people
hope at the same time they’re providing the truth about tough sit-
uations. It’s their job to be role models for re-igniting enthusiasm
when times are difficult.
So you need a plan. What fires you up? A day off to re-group? A
vacation to re-create yourself? A conversation with your favorite
customer? A talk with your newest employee? An e-mail to your
mentor? A phone call to Quinn? I’ll be glad to share the number.
64. What do you love about your job?
Did the word “love” in this question make you raise an eyebrow,
cough nervously, or think about moving on to the next page? These
questions are going to get increasingly personal as the pages turn,
and you’re going to have to make a decision about whether or not
you’re going to stay with them. Being a leader requires that you go
to a deeper level instead of staying on the surface. Oh, you can man-
age by skimming the top of issues, emotions, and people, but you
can’t lead from there.
Leadership requires thinking about and acting on things that
occur beneath the surface. It requires that you care enough to con-
front. People who have heard me talk about teams have heard me
say, “Hate is not the opposite of love. Apathy is.” Leaders can’t be
apathetic. So we need to talk about love, enthusiasm, fun, and mean-
ing. Can you handle that?
What do you love about your job? I hope it doesn’t take too long for
you to answer. It’s easy for leaders to get so caught up in all the
important things they’re supposed to do that they forget the things
that brought them to their profession in the first place. I remember
when my Aunt Elsie, who became a nurse during World War II,
realized that she wasn’t happy being a nurse because nurses no
longer spent much time with patients. Her first impulse was to quit
nursing since the part of the job she loved the most no longer occu-
pied most of her time, but she came to understand that, by chang-
ing the kind of nursing she was doing, she could do more of what
she loved. She left the hospital setting and became a visiting nurse.
She devoted the rest of her nursing career to direct patient care.
So let me ask the question again. What is the part of your job
that you love? The part you would do if they paid you or not?
What are the ways you can work more of those activities into
your schedule?
Just one other thought. What about loving the things you have
to do? There is a great greeting card that says, “In order to love what
you do, don’t do what you love, love what you do.” Pretend I’ve just
sent you that card. Hold it in your hands, stare at it for a while, and
ponder the message. Just some more food for thought.
65. What do you do just for fun?
I was doing a team-building session for a group of system-types in
a large organization. We had claimed our space in the corporate
conference center and made it ours for the two days of our session.
By the afternoon of the first day, it was a mess. Flipcharts covered
the walls, candy wrappers littered the floor, and colored makers were
everywhere. Subgroups were taking the challenge of designing and
producing a race-winning paper airplane seriously. The groups had
decided to put some distance between each other to avoid industrial
espionage and left the room to work outside in the warm spring sun-
shine. I was alone in the meeting room.
The door opened and a three-piece-suit type stuck his head in the
room, looked the space over and said, with a touch of disapproval,
“What’s going on in here?”
“A session on team building,” I calmly replied.
“Oh,” he said as he backed out of the room, “You’re not doing
real work then.”
I no longer react to such ignorance; I just feel pity. All those peo-
ple who haven’t figured out that learning can be fun, work can be
fun, and fun can be work, just don’t get it. Organizations thrive
when people have fun as they work together. Leaders are the ones
that make having fun at work a legitimate behavior.
Fun. Ah, you remember fun, don’t you? What do you do just for
fun? Think about the last time you grinned from ear to ear, giggled,
or laughed out loud. That was a hint, you were having fun.
Hopefully it’s not taking you too long to think of an example. The
more confusing, demanding, and complicated our lives become, the
more we need fun as a counterbalance. On really stressful days in
our office, we’ve been known to go outside to make snow angels,
have a Koosh ball battle, or dissolve into fits of tear-producing
laughter over really stupid jokes. What happens during stressful
times in your office?
How do you feel about fun? Is it an integral part of your work
and personal life? Do you believe it has a place in your off-duty
life, but not in the workplace? Is fun a word that’s lost its place in
your vocabulary? Think about it. You never know when someone
might ask!
66. What gives your life meaning?
This is the BIG question, and only you can answer it. But answer it
you must. Leaders owe it to themselves as well as the people they
lead to go deeper into their own motivations, their hopes, and their
dreams. Business schools don’t require a course in “Understanding
Your Personal Mission” for graduation, nor do many family con-
versations involve parents sharing their purpose in life with their
children. Most of us grow up believing that scores get kept based on
things like home runs hit, beauty contests won, and amounts on
annual W-2 forms. What a pity.
Think of a person who had a great positive influence on your life.
How did that happen? Was it the size of their office that so impressed
you that you decided right then and there that you were going to
strive to be a great leader? Was it the tale of an exotic vacation, a
fancy car, or a prestigious title that convinced you to follow some-
one’s footsteps? I rather doubt it. More likely it was a quiet word spo-
ken at the right moment, an encouraging smile after you spoke up at
a meeting, or a short note of congratulations for a job well done that
caused you to say, “This is a person I want to emulate.”
My friend Mary Marcdante said, “When you’re on purpose, life
fits.” How does your life fit these days? If tomorrow were your last
day on this planet, would your list of regrets be longer than your list
of accomplishments? People who are clear about the meanings of
their lives find it much easier to make decisions about the big things,
to prioritize the activities that fill up their days, and to know, really
know, what’s important. There is great peace of mind in knowing
how to answer if someone asks, What gives your life meaning?
In his wonderful book The Eagle’s Secret, David McNally quotes
Maureen Gustafsen, CEO of the Mankato Chamber and Convention
Bureau as saying, ”We all have a significant role to play. It is our duty
to determine that role and our obligation to fulfill it.” I couldn’t agree
more. That’s why this question appears twice in this book. It’s a ques-
tion you need to both ask and answer. Organizations that are filled
with people who both unapologetically ask and thoughtfully answer
this question are places with a very bright future.
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
Early on, I advanced the theory that great leaders don’t have all the
answers, but they have great questions; and now, as promised in the
beginning of this chapter, I’ve put you in the position of having to
provide answers. How did it feel?
Could you tell that these are not your usual let’s-go-ask-the-boss
kind of questions? I hope so. Managers understand that they need
to be factual, organizational, and functional resources for the peo-
ple on their teams. Leaders know that their questions and answers
must go beyond that—into areas of philosophy, ethics, and feelings.
All the answers we ever get
are responses to questions.
—Neil Postman, Chair, Department
of Culture and Communications,
New York University
Leaders are skillful at asking the right questions, at the right time,
of the right people. Leaders are equally skilled at giving the right
answers, to the right question, in the right context. They think about
the questions that need to be asked, learn from the answers, and take
action appropriately.
They know when to ask, when to answer, and when to listen.
They really mean it when they say, “Don’t worry, there’s no such
thing as a stupid question.” They have the courage to respond with
an “I don’t know” when they don’t know. They’re comfortable
answering a question with silence.
In Confessions of an Accidental Businessman, James Autry wrote,
“This has to do with the transition from manager to leader being
fundamentally a leap from the external to the internal, from the life
outside to the inner life, from a preoccupation with doing to the
acceptance of being as the defining characteristic of leadership.” I
couldn’t agree more!
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
1. Which of the questions in this chapter did you find the most chal-
lenging? Why?
2. What behaviors do you want to change based on what you’ve
learned in this chapter?

4. How would you answer those questions?
5. What is the one thing you want to remember most from this

questions to ask in special situations

get days filled with business as usual. A
leader’s day often consists of a string of unique situations that
they are expected to handle. What better way to prepare for
these special situations than to think about the questions you
might want to have ready when any of these common leader-
ship interactions happen? I’ve defined four Special Situations
when having questions at the ready will be a real benefit.
One of the best parts
of a leader’s job is to welcome new employees to
their team. My assumption is that your organization has a
formal orientation program for your new hires. (If it
doesn’t, you’re the one who brings up the need for such a
session at every opportunity, aren’t you?) The questions in
this section are about the time you personally devote to wel-
coming someone new to your team. Nothing will have a
It is better to debate a question
without settling it than to settle
a question without debating it.
—Joseph Joubert,
French essayist and moralist
greater impact on a new hire than that first, personal inter-
action with their new boss. Use the questions in this section
as a way to start an interesting dialogue with the new mem-
bers of your team.
In most
organizations, leaders participate in some form of coaching
and mentoring sessions for the people on their team and
possibly for people on other teams. These programs can
range from formal systems to informal, spontaneous hall-
way conversations. Leaders are assigned or sought out.
Leaders who take this role seriously (my bias is that if you
call yourself a leader, you do) will find the questions in this
section helpful.
One of your key
responsibilities as a leader will be to identify, nurture, and

they can be considered and promoted to leadership posi-
tions can be a source of great pride. The questions in this
section will help your new leaders build their confidence
and see their roles as leaders from a fresh perspective.
Taking the time to ask these questions will be a meaningful
investment in the future of your organization.
It would be nice to believe that
you could be a leader and never have to deal with a serious
crisis. Nice to believe, but probably unrealistic. Thinking
about your responsibilities before a crisis is infinitely better
than trying to determine them during the crisis. The ques-
tions in this section will help you if and when a crisis hits
your team or organization.
Your willingness to take the time and find the places to use the
questions in this chapter says a lot about your personal commitment
to leadership. Other questions in this book may stretch your courage
when you ask them, may be just plain tough to ask, or may challenge
the status quo of your organization. The questions in this chapter
will be helpful to ask and need to be part of your stock-in-trade.

35. Why did you decide to join our firm...really?
Remember the last time you took a new job with a new employer?
The reasons that brought you to that decision were undoubtedly
many and complex. Did anyone ever ask you why? Probably not.
Why don’t you do something different and start asking new hires
why they decided to join your company?
Asking this question will provide you with insights on several lev-
els. You’ll learn about your organization’s reputation in the industry.
You might gain insight into your organization’s relative position
on salaries and benefits. You might learn something about your
reputation as a leader. You’ll gain insight into your new hire’s decision-
making process. You can gauge their reaction when asked an unex-
pected question. Lots of good information, don’t you think?
This is a great place to reiterate the value of silence when asking a
challenging question. Years ago, when I was in sales, I learned a valu-
able technique. It was presented as a sales technique, but I’ve learned
that it works in many different situations for many different people
including salespeople, customer service representatives, spouses, par-
ents, and leaders, to name a few. It’s deceptively simple, as many effec-
tive techniques are, and it works like this. When you ask a question,
shut up until the answerer answers.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Try it, and you’ll dis-
cover how difficult it is to execute. Most of us are uncomfortable with
silence, and so we jump in to fill it. This behavior has lots of conse-
quences—different ones in different situations—but all of them seri-
ous. In the sales world, the commonly held wisdom says it this way:
The first person who talks after the question loses. When a ques-
tioner fills the silence after their own question, they do lose, big-time.
This is a perfect question to use to practice and develop your
comfort with silence. It’s the really at the end of the question that
guarantees the need for the answerer to pause to consider their
reply. The addition of that simple word pushes the answerer beyond
the quick, glib response they might have had ready after consider-
ing how much truth you’re looking for.
So, ask this question and wait, comfortably, while maintaining
eye contact, and then wait some more. You’ll continue to be sur-
prised how critical silence is for getting good answers to questions,
and this question will give you lots of opportunity to practice.
36. If you had to describe our organization in
one word, what would that word be?
More words adding up to longer answers do not necessarily provide
more insight. Sometimes questions that force brevity can provide
interesting answers that are easy to compare. This question falls into
that category.
Imagine asking this question of all new hires for six months.
Depending on the size of your organization and your rates of
turnover and expansion, you could develop and keep track of the
one-word answers pretty easily. What would be the value of that? I
can think of three.
1. As your list of descriptive words grows, you can compare
them and look for consistency of expectations from those
who join your organization or department. What do you
think it means if half the people respond with words like
“fun,” “energetic,” and “creative,” and the other half of the
people you’ve asked respond with words like “stable,” “tra-
ditional,” and “respectable”? My analysis of those
responses would be that half of the people who responded
were going to be disappointed. It’s up to you to decide
which half. A split response like this tells you that you
haven’t established a consistent image in your marketplace.
A consistent response that you like tells you your image is
intact. A consistent response you don’t like means you have
some actions to take.
2. As your list of words grows, you’ll gain insight into the way
people feel about your organization or department. Leaders
have responsibilities for feelings as well as facts, and you
might as well find out how people are feeling as they join
your team. Waiting until later isn’t exactly stellar leadership
3. Keep track of whom you’ve asked, how they answered, and
when you asked them. Use a milestone—four- to six-month
anniversaries would work—and ask the question again: Now
that you’ve been with us for a while, what one word would you
use to describe our organization? Asking and comparing these
answers will give you insight into the consistency of expe-
rience your people have as they become part of your team.
Don’t let the fact that my imagination was limited to three pos-
sibilities stunt your thought processes. What are other ways you
could use this information? Think about it.
37. What’s a great question I could ask some-
one who’s new to our organization?
This question is probably the most blatantly selfish question in the
entire book. Finding good questions becomes an obsession for lead-
ers who learn the value and power of asking questions. What better
way to find questions than to ask for them?
Asking for questions within your organization works for a while.
Every leader, even those who don’t make questioning a priority, will
have a few questions they routinely ask. But you’ll often find that
within an organization, questions seem to cluster around certain
themes. Asking for new questions from people who come from dif-
ferent organizational backgrounds will provide you with a whole
new set of possible questions.
But there is another, less selfish reason for asking this question of
a new hire. Their reaction will provide you with insights into their
comfort with a leader who asks questions. Some people will eagerly
share questions, some will haltingly respond with a question, and
others will stare blankly as if you’ve asked the most bizarre question
ever uttered.
The eager sharer is telling you either that they’ve joined your
team from a question-rich culture or that they understand the power
of questions and are happy to share. Work with this new employee
to strengthen their commitment to questioning and to encourage
them to share new questions as they find them.
The slow responder is letting you know that they haven’t had a
lot of experience with leaders who ask questions but are willing to
participate. Make sure you thank them for their contribution and
encourage them to make others in the future. Keep them in mind
for some gentle questioning in the near future so you can help
them understand this part of your leadership style.
The blank looker is harder to read. They may be confused by a
leader who asks questions, frightened by this level of interaction
with their new leader, or genuinely surprised by the action of a
leader asking them for their opinion. No matter which interpreta-
tion might be accurate, don’t jump to a conclusion. It’s now your
job to find out which of these (or any of many other explanations)
is the right one.
No matter which situation you encounter with this question, like
asking any good question of the right person at the right time, you’ll
get valuable information that you’ll be able to use in the future.
38. What questions can I answer for you?
If you don’t ask this question shortly after you meet a new employee,
if you don’t keep silent long enough for them to respond, and if you
don’t answer truthfully any questions that they do ask, you’ve lost
any chance for them to react positively to your questioning leader-
ship style in the future. More than just providing information, this
question is designed to begin the process of establishing trust.
Trust is a leader’s stock-in-trade. Without trust, it is impossible
to be a leader. You can be a manager, a boss, a dictator, or a ruler.
You can order people to do things, require rules to be followed,
inspire behavior from fear, or demand obedience, but you won’t
inspire confidence, encourage creativity, or be proud of yourself.
You can’t be a leader.
Trust is built and maintained through actions both big and small.
Respectfully asking questions and taking appropriate actions based
on the answers is one of the ways trust is built between leaders and
followers. Demonstrating your willingness to really listen to all the
If a question can be put at all,
then it can also be answered.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein,
Austrian philosopher
people on your team or in your organization is another. Asking
questions that go beyond the expected offers another path to trust.
Trust takes time to build, but it can be lost in a minute. As a
leader who asks questions, you need to watch out for these trust-
destroying behaviors:

Asking a question without listening to the answers
Expecting followers to take the time to answer your ques-
tions without taking the time to answer theirs

Treating their questions or answers as trivial

Missing an opportunity to ask the all-important follow-up

Not treating answers to questions with confidentiality (unless
you’ve asked for permission to share an answer)
If you ever, because of an enormous brain cramp, come close to
behaving in one of these ways, apologize at once, apologize repeat-
edly, apologize publicly (unless, of course, that would betray a con-
fidence and dig the hole you’re in even deeper), and then get to work
rebuilding the trust you’ve lost.
Remember, even if the person involved accepts your first apol-
ogy with a “Don’t worry, it’s not a big thing,” don’t believe him.
Smile, nod, and do the trust-building work anyway.

39. What are the strengths you bring to the
When you’re in a coaching situation, I believe that this is the best
beginning question. Not that it is easy for people to answer. Far
from it. Many of us are filled with childhood admonitions like
“Don’t boast” and “Be humble.” People who carry these messages
often have great difficulty articulating their personal strengths.
Some gave up trying years ago because the guilt they felt while giv-
ing themselves a personal pat on the back conflicted with the pride
they were feeling. Wouldn’t leading be easier if humans weren’t so
complex? But understanding our strengths is critical to success, and
so it becomes a leader coach’s job to help an individual compile this
list of strengths.
Conventional wisdom suggests that leaders have the responsibil-
ity to search out, point out, and sometimes even (gasp!) beat out an
employee’s weaknesses. Once again, conventional wisdom seems to
be wrong. Recent research by the Gallup Organization suggests that
a leader who focuses attention on identifying and fostering the
strengths of their employees will see improvement faster and further
than those who focus on trying to improve weaknesses.
A list of strengths needs to be specific in order to be helpful.
Coaches and mentors know how useless the “I’m good with people”
response really is. So this question requires some automatic follow-
up questions.

What does being “good with people” mean to you?

How do you do that?

Can you give me an example of when you did that?

What, of all the things you did in that situation, worked

What kind of feedback did you get after that happened?

How have you refined that skill over time?
All of these follow-up questions are designed to help your mentee
understand their true strengths in real terms. After this kind of con-
versation, “I’m good with people” becomes “I know how to help two
people in conflict find common ground and work together success-
fully.” A much better answer to build on.
40. What skills do you need to learn?
In the discussion of the last question, I suggested that building on
strengths was a better way to go as a coach than trying to eliminate
weaknesses. I hope I didn’t leave you thinking that you never had to
do anything with the latter. This is the question that moves you into
the tricky arena of weaknesses.
No one likes to think (let alone talk) about their deficiencies—
especially with their boss. Asking a person what they need to learn
is something completely different. If you were to ask me this ques-
tion, I’d give you answers that would include lifelong fantasies
(watercolor painting), practical stretch goals (writing a novel), and
an actual affects-my-job weakness (how to deliver tough feedback to
a co-worker). Being about to put one of my well-known-to-me
weaknesses in the middle of a list feels less dangerous than blurting
out that I’m really bad at giving feedback. (Actually I’m bad at get-
ting feedback, too, but I don’t even admit that to myself. The beauty
of the learning approach to weaknesses is that if I get to a class that
addresses part of my developmental need, I’m likely to get practice
on the other.)
A coaching or mentoring session that focuses on developing a
practical learning plan for the immediate future will be far more
fruitful in both the short and the long term for both of you.
41. What skills do you need to practice?
When coaches and mentors ask this question, they’re taking respon-
sibility in two areas—the quality of training programs and the qual-
ity of work experiences. Covers a lot of ground for a seven-word
question doesn’t it?
Let’s start with training. Training sessions that impart vast quan-
tities of information without considerable time for asking questions
and practicing are a waste of time. Adults learn when they do, not
when they hear. Imagine observing a class on interviewing skills. You
watch the students listen to the instructor; some even take notes. A
video is shown that presents several situations where interviews go
well and go wrong. There is a brief discussion after the video; the
instructor asks for questions and answers the few that are asked.
People fill out their evaluation forms and leave the room. See any
problem with that?
Try another scenario. Imagine observing a class on open-heart
surgery. You watch the students listen to the instructor; some even
take notes. A video is shown that presents several operations
where the surgery goes well and goes wrong. There is a brief dis-
cussion after the video; the instructor asks for questions and
answers the few that are asked. People fill out their evaluation
forms and leave the room. Do you have any desire to have that
surgeon operate on you?
You might be questioning whether it’s fair to put interviewing
skills in the same category with open-heart surgery, but look at it this
way. Is the skill set used by a person hiring a key employee for your
organization any less important than the skill set of the surgeon who
is walking into the operating room where you’re the one on the sur-
gical table? Demand that any training program your people are
attending has been designed by professionals who know how adults
learn and makes practice the most important part of the session.
Once someone has learned a new skill and practiced it in a learn-
ing setting, they have to be able to use the skill in a real-life situa-
tion. That’s the quality-of-work experience part of this question. You
wouldn’t be comfortable with a surgeon who told you that she’d had
extensive classroom experience doing open-heart procedures but
that you were going to be her first real patient, would you? You’d
want her to have assisted many times and you’d like to know she’d
be operating with an experienced surgeon at her side.
How about your mentee? After they’ve taken that class you
agreed upon, how are they going to get the real-world experiences
they need to cement their learning in a reality-based context? You
need to help them get the right assignments, the right support as
they use their new skills, and the right feedback to help them pol-
ish their newly learned technique.
And you thought being a coach was a snap.
42. Who in our organization do you need to know?
Business, any business, is about people. I will defend that statement
at any time, in any place, under any circumstance. Leaders know
more people, usually because they’ve been around longer and had
more opportunities to meet and converse with more people inside
and outside their organization. When a leader leaves one company
to go to another, it is more likely that they can—in the course of
their business day—keep in touch with people from their prior orga-
nization. Part of the leader’s job is to help others make connections.
Nowhere is this more helpful than in a coaching and mentoring ses-
sion. This question is designed to get your mental Rolodex going.
You listen to the response to this question and search for a person
you can recommend as a connection.
People need to find other people for information, perspective, or
advice. Each of these three situations has its own set of requirements.

Looking for information. Here you need to help your
mentee construct her own questions well so that when she
asks for information, she’s asking for the right information.
Usually you can suggest a phone contact unless the desired
information is detailed or lengthy. Make sure you give your
mentee permission to use your name as a reference.

Looking for perspective. When perspective is the goal of an
interaction between two people, a face-to-face meeting is
probably required. This is asking for more than a quick
answer, and you are sending your mentee to impose on
someone’s most precious commodity these days—time. In
this case, you will probably need to make a phone call of
explanation or facilitate the meeting yourself.

Looking for advice. I once coached a woman who was
struggling with issues around balancing her career with her
young children. I can remember my own issues of balance
well, but my experience was years ago, and things have
changed. I called a friend, a successful working mom I
know, and asked if she could spend some time with my
mentee, helping her figure out some strategies to keep her
sanity. Advice is a bigger request than information and per-
spective, and I needed to put some skin in the game by ask-
ing my friend what I could do to repay her. The night I
spent having pizza with her kids while she worked late on a
critical report was really quite fun.
No matter what form your connection takes, make sure you
remind your mentee about the basics of good networking. You
learned them from your mother or, if you didn’t, borrow my
mother’s lessons: Please, thank you, and the asker picks up the check.
43. What work would you like to be doing in
five years?
You don’t ask this question so you can hear the answer, you ask it so
your mentee can hear their answer. This is a question designed to
help people understand that they should dream about their future.
Isn’t it sad that we need to be encouraged to dream? Ask a six-year-
old and they’ll give you a list of all the things they want to be and
do. Ask a thirty-six-year old, and they’ll usually stammer and stut-
ter. Don’t let them duck it. “I don’t know. Guess I’ve never thought
much about it” can’t be an acceptable answer when a leader, acting
as a coach, asks this question.
Push. Make them think about it. Make it perfectly clear that
there is no right or wrong answer. They aren’t committing career
suicide if they admit to a secret passion that involves writing the
Great American Novel or starting their own business. You won’t
take them off the promotion list if they reveal that they want your
job. Let them know you’ve got five-year dreams too.

44. Why do you think we made you a leader?
Asking a question that requires self-evaluation is valuable for both
the asker and the answerer. The answerer gets the immediate chal-
lenge of doing the self-evaluation and the reward of the insights
they gain.
This question will provide you, the asker, with information on
how promotions are viewed within your organization. The reasons
individuals ascribe to other people’s promotions are often interest-
ing. The reasons they share for their own promotions are even more
Every clarification breeds new
—Arthur Bloch, American merchant
fascinating. You’ll get responses that are naive, cynical, and out of
left field. You’ll get some answers that are insightful, well-thought-
out, and accurate. You’ll find people who are embarrassed you asked
and those who can’t wait to talk about it—at length and in great
detail. Given this diversity of responses, why ask this question at all?
You ask it to determine how well your leadership promotion process
is working.
An answer that accurately reflects the balance you strive for
between the leadership behaviors your organization desires and the
skill set of the person who’s been promoted can give you confidence.
The right leadership messages are being sent by the process itself as
well as the individuals who are being promoted. This is good news
for you and your organization. Any time that this match doesn’t hap-
pen during the answer to this question, you’ve got some work to do.
Unfortunately, in many organizations, promotions to leadership
positions aren’t made on identifiable future leadership potential but
rather on past technical performance. Don’t misunderstand. I’m well
aware of the need for high standards when it comes to technical
expertise and of the fact that it’s often a challenge to find a person
who is both technology savvy and people savvy. But, just because it’s
difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just because the technical part
of our work is considered the hard side and the people part of our
work is referred to as the soft side, doesn’t mean that the hard-side
stuff is more important. In fact, one could argue (and many have)
that leadership is all about soft-side stuff.
Any omission of the soft-side issues in a new leader’s response to
this question should raise a red flag that requires your attention.
People can’t know what they don’t know, and a person who’s been
named a leader may not realize the new scope of their responsibili-
ties. You may need to mentor this person closely as they begin their
journey as a leader.
45. What did the best leader you ever had do?
I used to do customer service training until I started viewing poor
service as a bonus event that would provide me with more material,
a greater sense of job security, and a reason to celebrate. That’s a
perverse worldview, so I changed the focus of my work.
There was an exercise I did in those workshops that applies here.
Since everyone has been a customer, I asked participants to share the
worst customer service they’d ever experienced. Then we compiled
a list of the characteristics that made those encounters unbearable. I
scribbled their answers onto a large flip chart and then told them not
to be guilty of any of those behaviors themselves. This technique
worked quite well I might add, because we’ve all been a poorly
treated customer and can identify how the transaction went wrong.
The same technique can apply to leadership, especially when you
apply it with a positive spin. When you ask, What did the best leader
you ever had do?, you’re asking a new leader to identify the good lead-
ership behavior they’ve experienced. We’ve all been led by others and
can identify what worked. Listening to their answers and supporting
the behavior choices they’ve made also gives new leaders a sense of
confidence about their potential as leaders. Asking new leaders to
adopt positive leadership behavior they’ve experienced and have cho-
sen as beneficial is much more effective than burying them with a
laundry list of your own notions of effective leadership.
As your leadership dialogue with new leaders deepens over time,
these initial behaviors can be the ones you question them about. As
they grow more confident as leaders and as you have more insight
into their leadership strengths and development needs, you can sug-
gest other skills that they might want to work on as well as ways to
learn and develop them.
46. What do you need to learn to be a great
Why would you ask this question? Why do you ask any ques-
tion? Questions are asked in order to learn. This question goes
to the heart of the philosophy that believes that people aren’t
born to be great leaders; they’re great leaders because they’ve
learned to lead.
(A note of caution for this and the next question. Don’t ask these
questions if you and your organization don’t have the intention or
the systems in place to provide learning and support activities for
newly promoted leaders. It just isn’t fair.)
If I had to guess, I’d predict you’re going to hear answers that range
from “I don’t know” to “Here’s my list.” Think about your responses
to answers that fill that spectrum as I share a few of my ideas.
The person who responds with a list of leadership behaviors they
want or need to learn about needs help with prioritizing. If you don’t
help them focus their leadership learning objectives, they will
quickly become overwhelmed by the scope of all they believe they
don’t know. They need your guidance so they can pick one behav-
ior or skill to work on first. Based on your understanding of the
group this person is about to lead and their current leadership skill
set, make a few suggestions about places to start as well as what
resources are available. Be prepared to follow up with them in fairly
short order to make sure they’ve kept focused and not fallen into the
“I’m so overwhelmed I can’t do anything” trap.
A response of “I’m not sure yet” requires more questions. You
need to help this new leader explore the scope of good leadership
skills and find a way to discover where they should start their lead-
ership learning plan. If you’ve asked, What did the best leader you ever
had do?, you have some insight into this person’s view of good lead-
ership, and you can use that answer as a starting place.
A straight-on “I don’t know” response to this question means
you’ve got some work on your hands. My first concern would be to
see if this new leader is taking their new role seriously enough. I’d
hope that anyone who was stepping into their first leadership posi-
tion would have spent some time thinking about what they needed
to learn in order to become an effective leader. Trying not to let my
obvious negative judgment show (that’s probably something you
wouldn’t have to deal with, would you?), I’d indicate that we need
to continue this conversation for a while until the right follow-up
steps become obvious.
An aside. If you have influence over your organization’s training
programs, this question should make you curious about how you
prepare leaders in your organization. This would be a perfect time
to find out.
47. How can we support you as you grow into
this leadership position?
Please consider this question carefully. Asking it means that you
take leadership seriously, and it would be dishonest to ask if you
neither have the resources nor the intentions to provide the sup-
port you’re asking about. But, even if you don’t have a formal pro-
gram for new leaders, you can still support their efforts. You are
their leader, after all.
Support in general is a key aspect of a leader’s job. In fact, sup-
porting others as they work to get their jobs done is the biggest part
of a leader’s job. Your supportive actions will take many forms, but
they’re all just part of a broader support system for new leaders.

Leaders provide support when they act as role models. From
the superheroes of our youth to the inspiring figures of
adulthood, we’ve all craved having someone to show us how
to behave. This if-I-had-a-pattern-I-could-follow-it stems
from our earliest way of learning. As very young children we
watched the people around us, imitated their behavior, and
learned about how the world worked. Leaders can support
by serving as role models.

Leaders provide support when they break barriers for their
teams. Leaders aren’t leading when they solve problems for
their team. But they aren’t leading either if they distance
themselves from their team’s issues. Leaders are right on tar-
get when they help a team clarify the problem they’re work-
ing on, offer a wider perspective on an issue, provide feedback
(when requested) on a particular solution, offer access to
resources when implementation is imminent, or take a battle
farther up in the organization when something falls outside
of the team’s charter. Leaders provide support when they
eliminate appropriate barriers.

Leaders provide support when they listen. Sometimes peo-
ple need a sounding board for their thoughts and ideas—not
a surface that talks back, but a surface that reflects their own
thoughts and ideas so the team can see their work from a
fresh perspective. People need a surface that asks questions
when clarity is needed. Good listening behavior allows a
leader to do all these things. Leaders provide support when
they listen.
Practice these, and add other supporting behaviors to your lead-
ing repertoire. There is probably no more rewarding work for a
leader to do than to nurture new leaders. The bonus is that you’ll
be a better leader for it.

48. Are you all right?
In a crisis this question will mean different things to different peo-
ple, and that’s perfectly okay. Some people will assume that you’re
asking about their physical well-being and will answer from that per-
spective. Some will assume you’re asking about their mental state
and will answer that way. Still others will give you credit for think-
ing and caring about both. They’ll answer with that interpretation
in mind. No matter which question they believe you’ve asked, their
answers will be valid.
In times of crisis, people look to their leaders for clues to the
behavior that’s expected. The last thing a leader should do in emer-
gency situations is to disappear. If you disappear, your people will
create reasons for your absence, none of which will be particularly
Good questions outrank easy
—Paul A. Samuelson,
American economist
favorable to you or your leadership. Your organization, your lead-
ership team, your people, or, in some situations, the public, can’t
afford for you to disappear, hide behind spokespeople, stop making
eye contact, or utter repeated No comments. (There are ways of not
making a statement without saying No comment. Learn how from a
professional.) The bigger the crisis, the more visible, approachable,
and accessible leaders need to be. No excuses. No exceptions.
Okay, maybe one little exception. If you’re facing a major crisis,
one that seriously limits your ability to spend time with each person
you need to ask this question of, appoint people to ask and listen in
your place. Gather them together and explain that “The first thing
we need to do is to check on our team. I want each of you to talk
and listen to as many of our people as you can by asking them if
they’re okay.” Then, plan your timetable, send the group out to ask
and listen, and regroup to discuss the responses and plan your next
actions. This exception does not extend permission to disappear
from the eyes of the people who look to you for leadership. I’ve
granted you permission to ease up on the approachability and acces-
sibility, but not the visibility.
If this isn’t making sense, let me try one more time. Does think-
ing about Mayor Giuliani’s conduct after September 11th make the
picture clearer?
49. What do you need to know?
Crisis creates fear, and the only way I know to quell fear is with
information. Your job as a leader during a crisis is to be visible,
approachable, accessible (see the comments on the previous ques-
tion), and the fount of all information. Impossible, you say. I guess
I agree. It’s impossible, and yet a leader needs to figure out how to
make it happen during a crisis.
As I see it, the only possibility of pulling this one off is a combi-
nation of two things. First, you need to have your own support
group that is made up of the smartest people you can find and that
can be mobilized quickly. Some need to be people-smart. These are
the individuals who know the soft side of leadership inside and out.
Others need to be technology wizards in whatever technology makes
your business run and makes it special. These people won’t neces-
sarily be leaders; in fact, some of them will be frontline doers. Just
make sure you know who they are and how to get them close to you
in a hurry. With your team assembled, you can go to work.
You’ll be the point person, talking to people and asking them
what they need to know. Some responses you’ll be able to answer
immediately. Some answers will come from the members of your
team. There are some things you’re asked for that you or your team
won’t be able to provide right away. That’s where the second part of
the strategy comes into play.
Make it the job of those soft-skills experts to keep track of the
unanswered questions and the people who asked them. As informa-
tion becomes available, research is completed, and answers found, it
is the job of the soft-skills people to get those details out—deliver-
ing the right answers to the right people. If there is a significant time
lapse between questions being asked and answers being available,
these people will also have the responsibilities for periodic updates
and check-ins so no one feels as if the information they’ve requested
isn’t important, or even worse, as if they’re not important.
If this feels like a lot of work, it is. The scope of your crisis will
determine the complexity of your information distribution process
and system. Just don’t lose sight of what started the need for all this
in the first place.
You’re the leader. You and your people are living through a cri-
sis. You asked the question a good leader would ask: What do you need
to know?
❚ ❚ ❚
50. What do you need?
Now reread the answer to the last question. Probably the team you
assembled in response to that question will continue to deal with the
results of asking this question. There’s one more thing to focus on.
In a time of crisis, when emotions are high, it’s tempting, yet dis-
astrous, to promise things you hope you can provide but which,
when the question is asked, you aren’t sure you can deliver. People
don’t cut you a lot of slack for these promises. Remember, they hear
the promises through their own emotions and often cling to them
as literal lifelines. Going back on a promise (even an implied one)
with so much emotion invested, is at best uncomfortable and at
worst a disaster (potentially bigger than the original crisis).
So what’s a leader to do? Only make promises you can person-
ally fulfill by your own authority or out of your wallet. For things
beyond those parameters, stop, listen carefully, take notes about the
issue or need, and respond with something like the following:
“What I’ve heard is that you need [recap the individual’s request].”
Pause and wait for confirmation. “What I’m doing with all requests
that we can’t immediately fill is the same thing I promise to do with
yours. I’ve taken notes along with your contact information. My
promise to you is that I will be back in touch with you by [insert a
reasonable length of time]. By then we’ll have a better grasp of the
entire situation and I’ll be able to answer your request accurately.”
Putting this in your own words and practicing it will make it your
own. Discuss it with your crisis team and make sure they understand
the impact for all of you when any one of you makes a promise that
can’t be kept later. Apply the old customer service motto:
Underpromise and overdeliver and you’ll be all right.
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
If you weren’t convinced before, then after reading this chapter you
must be sure that most leadership activities include some form of
special circumstance. It is these special, unexpected, out-of-the-
ordinary moments that define leadership as something beyond sim-
ply watching tasks being accomplished, projects being completed on
time and under budget, and customers being served. It is what makes
art the necessary adjunct to the science of leadership. It’s what makes
the role of leader an exciting place of creativity.
Leaders in different organizations, different industries, and dif-
ferent teams face different special circumstances. The ones I focused
on in this chapter are fairly common. But I don’t know yours. Based
on your past history in your environment, what special situations do
Effective management always
means asking the right ques-
—Robert Heller, American editor
you imagine you’ll face in the next twelve months? This would be a
great time to use the worksheet on the following pages to make a
list of your potential special situations and to brainstorm questions
you could use if and when any of those situations actually happened.
I worked with an excellent leader for many years. He often told
his team, “Don’t bring me any surprises.” He meant it, and they
learned that he meant it. I watched him talk (to use a polite form of
an appropriate verb) to one of his team members when a surprise
came through her team and surfaced at the top in his office. It wasn’t
very pretty and not a really great example of leadership. On the
other hand, I had also been present when that surprise unfolded and
I watched him handle the customer with the big, long-term prob-
lem that he hadn’t known about. That conversation seemed to be
handled by another man entirely. In fact, if I hadn’t been there for
both of them, I wouldn’t have believed a single person could behave
so differently. So I asked.
“Why were you so calm and powerful when you talked to the cus-
tomer and so out-of-control and unfocused when you talked to your
direct report?”
“I’ve spent years thinking about and creating questions to ask
when a customer has a problem,” he said. “I just never thought to
do the same for a time when one of my team disappointed me.”
No matter how long you’ve been a leader, thinking things
through, developing a set of questions that match a situation, and
practicing is a really good idea.
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
1. Which of the special situations in this chapter did you find most
compelling? Why?
2. What other special situations do you face?
3. What questions do you need to think about for those situations?
4. How will you answer those questions?