Good leadership is asking the right questions - Chris Wilson

In the recent flood of coverage about the late Queen, I was particularly struck by the strength of her leadership that came through in so much of the commentary. One exchange in particular caught my eye, especially in light of recent events at number 10.

Former Prime Minister James Callaghan was recalling an interaction with the Queen. He was dealing with a particularly troublesome issue and was struggling. At one of his weekly audiences with the queen, he took it upon himself to enquire as to what he might do. Quick as a flash came the reply… “that’s why you are paid the big bucks”.

I’s not, I suspect, that the queen did not have an answer. I’m certain she will have. However, giving her view would narrow his perspective – he needed to explore all options without bias and with all the context and facts. Once decided, of course she can have an opinion on plans, share wisdom and indeed challenge if she sees fit. But not tell him what to do.

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I’ve been lucky enough to lead in great organisations and experience lots of different leadership styles. This exchange hit home with me as it was very aligned with a recent (and am sure you may think very obvious) realisation of mine on leadership. No, on great leadership.

Chris Wilson, partner and co-founder, Opto AdvisoryChris Wilson, partner and co-founder, Opto Advisory
Chris Wilson, partner and co-founder, Opto Advisory

Great leadership is not about the ability to use your wisdom and experience to give great answers. Vanity sometimes causes us to fall into that trap. Great leadership is about using those same attributes to ask great questions.

So not, “You should” or “I would …”. Instead, “why might that be happening” or simply, “what do you think?” A small change but a big difference.

And I know it works because I’ve experienced it…

“Why might that have happened?” asked the pro, as I once again hit a wild slice with my 6 iron at a golf lesson. Initially, this was a source of great frustration for me. I booked the lesson for the pro to tell me why it was happening. We both persevered… “maybe my swing was a bit wonky?” I offered pathetically. “OK, why might that be the case?” The professional gradually coaxed my amateur golf brain to work out what was going wrong. Then, as we narrowed the issues down to the most significant (of many) issues with my game, next came, “What could you do about that?” And then, “OK, try that then.”

And so the process continued – trial and error, to rectify the issues in my game. Miraculously (and for him I expect painfully), the shots started to straighten out, the flight path improved, and I actually started to hit what looked like a golf shot. Then he said it:

“I’ll not be on the golf course with you when you start to hit bad shots – you need to work out what’s going on and how to sort it yourself”.

So, whether it’s a recurring slice or a global crisis, great leadership is not about telling. Like the Queen, it is about taking the time to ask great questions so that, in the moment, we help people get the best from themselves when it matters.

Chris Wilson, partner and co-founder, Opto Advisory

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