Effective Leadership: The Importance of Asking Why


There was a blog entry posted today arguing leaders should not ask ‘why’ and instead focus on asking ‘what.’ The author, who writes excellent posts on leadership  argued why was a backwards looking question and served no purpose beyond the psychologist’s couch. He couldn’t be more wrong.

A good leader can turn even a poor/costly decision into a learning experience so it does not happen again. A former boss (a CEO) once told me in my first job out of college, “even if you crash the car, tell me about it.” If I messed up, I took his advice and it led to a learning conversation. The insight helped me see why it happened, providing context and learning that I could use to avoid repeating the situation in the future. If his questions stopped at WHAT without further explanation, then there would be no learning and I may have gotten fired (not that I had many of these conversations).

This is the fundamental reason ‘why’ should ALWAYS be asked by an effective leader if their intention is to provide learning from it to either avoid or repeat it in the future. It’s the leader’s responsibility to go beyond ‘what’, gain a better understanding of a chain of events and then apply the understanding to either facilitate -or avoid- future situations. Think 9/11, Katrina or within business, the economic situation we’re in. If our leaders stopped at ‘what’ it would have stopped the learning and may have lead to a repeat.

If someone working for you messes up, don’t stop after finding out WHAT happened; you may jump to conclusions based on partial data. You would then lose the opportunity to make it a learning experience. You learn, the employee learns and the business wins in the long run.

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