The right questions to ask yourself as a leader

Leadership skills can be learned, though along the way you may have to rethink your conception of what a great leader actually does, and overcome discomfort and anxiety in order to raise your game. One of the most uncomfortable facts is that great leadership is not about having all the answers, but about asking the right questions.

So here are some key questions from professor Robert Steven Kaplan of Harvard Business School, who says, “show me a company or government in trouble, and I will almost invariably show you a set of leaders who are asking absolutely the wrong questions.” These are the questions that he thinks may be the right ones!

1. Have I got a clear vision and key priorities for my business?

Problems with businesses often start with a lack of clarity. You need a clearly articulated vision, communicated effectively, with a manageable set of key priorities, or you may find yourself presiding over an organisation where employees are wasting their energies in all the wrong directions.

Once your vision is established, come up with and communicate a list of no more than three to five priorities that are critical in order to achieve it. Question activities which are costing time and money yet not contributing to organisational goals – maybe you shouldn’t be doing them.

2. Do I spend most of my time on my key priorities?

If you don’t make time to work out where you are going, how do you know you are spending all that time and energy on the right things? You must make time to match the available hours with your key priorities.

A Managing Director client recently analysed her to-do list: she was doing things she had the knowledge and skills to do, yet were trivial in terms of the broader direction of the business. She’s now spent the time and effort needed to analyse the issue and get someone on board who can be trained to relieve her of these tasks and free her up to do the work she really should be doing at her level of seniority.

3. Do I solicit feedback from others?

You probably already know you need to coach key employees, but how often do you ask for coaching in return? The more senior you are, the fewer people are able to effectively observe and coach you – and ironically, the people most in need of feedback in many organisations are very senior.

When you ultimately do cultivate junior coaches, you may find the criticism feels devastating because you realise it is accurate and probably a view widespread in your organisation. But thank your coach, and then go out and work on what they’ve told you. Not sure the assessment is accurate? Call a few close friends or loved ones and see what they think!

4. Do I have potential successors in place?

It’s vital to develop successors for key positions in your company – especially your own. Develop up-and-comers by delegating to them extensively – this will also give you more time to get on with key priorities. By failing to train successors you risk not only doing too much yourself, but also losing valuable employees as they become frustrated.

5. If I had to design my company today, what would I change?

The world doesn’t stand still, and it’s natural for your company to go off track – you may not realise how much until serious damage has been done to your business or its reputation.

There are various approaches for reviewing your organisation with a clean sheet of paper. You could engage external mentors and advisers, or if you have good people in your company, why not create a task force of committed younger staff? It’s a great way not only to get strategic advice from people who already know and are committed to the business, but also to motivate these key staff, who may be future leaders of your company.

6. Do I act as a role model?

It’s easy to go from starting your enterprise to running a large business in what seems like a moment, and you may forget that your actions set an example for the people who work for you. Suddenly people are watching what you do and you may have to change your behaviour to send the messages you want to be sending

7. Am I reaching my potential and being true to myself?

While most of these questions are about becoming more effective as a leader, make sure you also retain your perspective and manage yourself effectively to express what really motivates and inspires you. In the end, it’s not about meeting everyone else’s expectations, it’s about developing your own leadership style and reaching your own unique potential.

What questions do you ask as a leader?

Our Communication for Effective Leadership programme can help