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Book Review: Leading With Questions

Though this book has been out for a while, I continue to be impressed by its relevancy as I work with organizational clients.

Book Review

Leading with Questions

Michael Marquardt

Jossey/Bass/Wiley: San Francisco, CA: 2005

Reviewed by: Dr. Sarah Stebbins, C.P.C.


“Change begins with inquiry, and Leading with Questions jump-starts the process with its practical approach for leaders who want to develop and ask questions that provoke reflection, get meaningful information and initiate action.”

Martin B. Kormanik, President and CEO, O.D. Systems


Through a series of interviews with twenty-two leaders from around the world, Michael Marquardt demonstrates the critical importance of asking questions and creating a “questioning” organizational culture.  The author states that the process of asking questions is “an underused management tool”. To make his point, he organizes his book into three distinct parts.

In Part 1 he explains the power of asking questions: for individuals and organizations. He claims that when one becomes a leader the assumption is that he/she is to “have the answers rather than questions.”  He continues, “Asking questions-or being unable to answer questions addressed to us-may show that we are some how lacking as leaders.”

In his seminal 1980’s book The Fifth Discipline , Peter Senge coined the term the “learning organization”. If an organization is to adapt and change, it must open itself to practicing inquiry. This concept is aligned with Marquardt when he states “the ability to ask questions goes hand in hand with the ability to learn. A learning organization is only possible if it has a culture that encourages questions.”  Among the benefits of asking questions are:

  • Increased self-awareness: In addition to being action oriented, leaders need to be self-reflective. As Marquardt explains, “Astute and clear understanding of personal motives is one of the most critical of leadership skills……when we feel free to ask questions and are open to the questions of others, it heightens our need to reflect.”
  • Greater Self-Confidence, Openness and Flexibility: Environments that cultivate innovation and curiosity support personal development.  According Marquardt, “People who ask questions have more self-confidence as they see the people they question show appreciation and respect for the question and the questioner.”
  • Better Listening and Communication: The ability to listen without judgment and truly gain an understanding of another’s perspective are benefits of asking questions.
  • Managing Conflict: Research clearly demonstrates that those leaders who question effectively are better able to manage conflict.  Marquardt states that this is due to their ability to “draw out all parties, understand the differing perspectives, and then find a common ideal that everyone can endorse.”
  • Greater Understanding and Skills in Organizational and Political Realities: Maintaining a pulse on the political and organizational climate is a prime responsibility for leaders and Marquardt explains that “questioning leaders” are more “politically astute and better able to detect crucial networks.”

He concludes by stating that if we feel defensive when we are asked questions and if we are fearful of being viewed as ignorant when we ask questions, then we are limiting the flow of critical information required for effective decision making and creating necessary relationships.

In Part 2 the author provides insight into why effective questioning is a challenge for leaders, how to select the right questions and effectively ask them.

Here are the reasons he cites for leaders not asking effective questions:

  • “We avoid questions out of a natural desire to protect ourselves
  • We are too often in a rush
  • We often lack of skills in asking or answering questions due to lack of experiences and opportunities, of training, and of role models.
  • We find ourselves in corporate cultures and working environments that discourage questions, especially those that challenge existing assumptions and policies.”

He goes on to describe the difference between those questions that empower and those that disempower. Disempowering questions generally focus on why something didn’t get done or the individual who was responsible for not meeting expectations. Marquardt’s examples of disempowering questions include:

  • Why are you behind schedule?
  • What is the problem with this project?
  • Who isn’t keeping up?
  • Don’t you know better than that?

More empowering questions he cites include:

  • How do you feel about the project so far?
  • What have you accomplished so far that you are most please about?
  • How would you describe the way you want this project to turn out?
  • Which of these objectives do you think will be easiest to accomplish? Which ones will be most difficult?
  • What will be the benefits for our customers [students, co-workers] if you can meet all these objectives-for our company [department, PCC] for our team, for you personally?
  • What key things need to happen to achieve the objective?  What kind of support do you need to assure success?

Elaborating on questioning, the author continues his discussion with examples of the types of effective questions:

  • Open ended
    • What do you think about………?
    • Could you say more about…….?
    • What possibilities come to mind? What might happen if you…….?
    • What do you think you will lose if you give up [the point under discussion]?
    • What have you tried before?
    • What do you want to do next?
    • What happens if…..?
    • Have we ever thought of….?
    • What would happen if you did nothing at all?
  • Exploratory
    • Have you explored or thought of…..?
    • How would [source 1=”idea” 2=”etc.” language=”,”][/source][/source]help you?
  • Probing
    • Describe how…….
    • Can you elaborate on…..?
    • Would you please expand…….?
    • Can you clarify….?
  • Reflective
    • You said there are difficulties with——-, what do you think caused those difficulties?
  • Clarifying
    • Could you explain more about this situation?
    • How exactly do you see——getting done?
    • What exactly did you mean by——–?

Selecting the right questions is the first step to gaining the desired information.  Marquardt goes on to describe the “art of asking questions”.  He indicates that one needs to provide a context for the questions. This “setting the stage” focuses on the one asking the question rather than the other person.  By being inquisitive, rather than judgmental, the one asking the question makes it clear that his/her purpose for asking is to learn. He offers suggestions for conversation openers:

“I hope to get a better understanding of why we are having this problem.”

“I want a better feel for how——–are responding to ————.”

“I want to understand how you feel about my plan for ———-.”

The author clearly points out that setting the context and asking the right questions are irrelevant if the one asking the questions does not listen effectively to the responses.  He provides numerous suggestions for becoming a competent active listener.


Part 2 of this book is concluded with an in-depth discussion of how to create a “questioning culture” in an organization.  Marquardt states “The goal for the inquiring leader is to… everyone see and understand that questions need to become their primary communications tool.”  Among the strategies he suggests for creating this culture are:

  • “Create an environment that enables people to challenge the status quo, take risks, and ask more questions.
  • Connect the values and processes of the organization to the use of questions.
  • Optimize the opportunities to ask questions by building questioning into every business activity, including formal and informal meetings, calls, conferences or presentations.
  • Provide training for people to be better at and more comfortable in asking questions.”

Part 3 of Marquardt’s book is a “questioning guide” for leaders. The chapters guide the reader toward using questions for: managing people, building teams, shaping strategy and enabling change.

In summary, Marquardt’s research and the importance of questioning as a management tool should not be over looked.  If one can truly master asking effective questions, one can truly become a model and catalyst for organizational change.