Powerful leaders pose the most powerful questions by Stefan Güldenberg

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Julia Kirby senior editor, Harvard University Press

John Hagel consultant and author, Net Gain

The most effective leaders of the future will be those who have the most powerful and inspiring questions and who are willing to acknowledge they don’t have the answers, and that they need and want help in finding the answers. It’s in sharp contrast to the conventional view of leaders as the ones who have the answers to all the questions.

Drucker Forum 2020

When do leaders ask questions?

In this excellent dialogue, John Hagel began by noting an interesting contrast between leaders in private and leaders in the public sphere. In the privacy of leadership meetings leaders ask questions all the time: How can we increase our productivity by 10 percent? or Are you sure you have done everything to get this done? The basic purpose is to challenge managers to control them, not out of curiosity because the leader wants to learn something new. Even more when leaders give public talks they rarely ask questions; they provide the answers, because that is what we often expect from them.

The great transformation: From scalable efficiency towards scalable learning?

For Hagel, we are in a big shift – a great transformation from old models centered around scalable efficiency towards new models of scalable learning. Scalable efficiency management concentrates on managing cost, becoming faster and more efficient. The paradox here is that scalable efficiency is becoming less and less sufficient, being more fragile and more vulnerable to disruption. On the other hand scalable learning, the new management model, is not just running through training programs or HR development but rather means generating new knowledge and learning through actions together with others. In a rapidly changing world the organizations that will succeed in this world are the ones that will be able to learn faster at scale than others.

What is a strong leader?

The mark of a strong leader in the old world of scalable efficiency is that they have an answer to every question. If they don’t have the answer, maybe it is time to get rid of them and appoint someone who does. In the scalable learning model the mark of a strong leader is the one who has the most powerful question and who freely acknowledges that they don’t have an answer and need help to find one. The question: Can you help? really draws out the inspiration to learn. It cultivates the motivation to learn.

The example of Domino’s Pizza

There are few good examples of scalable learning yet. An exception is Domino’s Pizza: If customers complained that they didn’t like its pizzas any more, in the old management world leaders would have hushed up the statement and punished those responsible for the recipes. Following the model of scalable learning Domino’s managers made it public by directing the question back to their customers: Please help us: How can we make better pizzas? It generated an avalanche of ideas and added customer trust.

Everyone has to become a knowledge worker

Is the new model of scalable learning only relevant for knowledge workers? Who is a knowledge worker? For Hagel, everyone has to become a knowledge worker, because the rest can and will be rendered redundant by technology. What are the unseen problems and opportunities that can create more value? It is only by asking the questions that you can see what is coming down the line. Learn by acting.

What makes a question powerful?

According to Kirby: When it is inspiring and engaging. According to Hagel: When it focuses on a really big opportunity that has not been seen before and can motivate people to take risks. One of the leadership challenges is to move people beyond fear and inspire them to take risks. Many leaders drive change with a “burning platform” message: If we don’t change we die. But that feeds fear. Instead ask inspiring questions – here is the big opportunity, isn’t this worth changing for? – that help people to move beyond fear.

How do we get better at asking powerful questions?

Cultivating curiosity; zoom out and zoom in. Zoom out: Look far ahead at a distance, say 10 or 20 years, and use that to frame some of the opportunities and understanding of exponential change. Zoom in: What can we do in the short term to increase impact, accelerate movement and learn in the process. Used together, these can help to frame powerful questions that motivate people to act. Hagel sees himself as a combination of researcher and consultant: Zooming out and in. It is important not to become too abstract but at the same time to avoid focusing too much on detail. Look for edges (geographic edges, like emerging economies, demographic edges, technology edges, …).

Some further key insights/takeaways into the future of work

  • The key question is: What will the work be about? From routine work towards non-routine work, because routine and standardized work will be taken over by machines.
  • Too many talk about reskilling. Instead we have to cultivate capabilities like curiosity and asking powerful questions which make reskilling more effective at addressing unseen problems and opportunities to create future value.
  • Opportunity-based narratives: Narratives differ from stories in that they are open ended. Apple: Think different.
  • Trust is eroding in all our institutions. Why? Because leaders pretend to have answers to all possible questions: Either they have no clue or they are lying. The result is diminishing trust. To express vulnerability: I don’t know creates trust.
  • ●       Curiosity: Most of us just want to be told what to do. Curiosity is like a muscle you have to train. Children should be our role models. Show me one that doesn’t have creativity and curiosity.

About the author:
Stefan Güldenberg is Vice President Practice of the European Academy of Management and President-elect of The New Club of Paris, a think tank and agenda developer for the knowledge economy

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.


  1. People in power often start believing that they know everything and if they ask questions or wish to explore alternative solutions, they may be regarded as weak leader. This pseudo feeling of knowing everything often causes the damage to organisational culture, affecting it’s life and growth prospects.
    In this perspective the need for questioning is important. The leadership chain must imbibe such habits of informed decision making.

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