Great coaches, teachers and network marketing leaders are master askers. This seems to go against the grain of the prevalent view of leaders as strong-minded generals with all the answers. But here is a liberating truth: The quality of our teams will be determined by the quality of the questions we ask each other.


How Leaders Ask Questions

Leaders and coaches who ask more than tell create leaders rather than only followers.

When we ask questions, we spark thought and stimulate discovery. We help others think for themselves. Over time, those we coach develop far greater insight and understanding, allowing their vision to expand. By asking more than telling, we also breathe faith into others’ hearts, which helps them take responsibility for their decisions and actions.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t times to give answers. It simply means that as a coach, you want to help others become self-starters who think for themselves.

A simple strategy for getting started on this path is to discipline yourself to respond first with a question when people come to you for advice. Instead of stepping forward to tackle their problems, first ask, “What do you think would be the best way to handle this?” You’ve instantly let them know you value their ideas and are giving them the chance to help themselves.

They may initially feel uncomfortable or even disappointed that you didn’t give them an answer, but over time, the growing sense of personal responsibility you foster with this strategy will help strengthen their solution-orientation, and confidence.

The secret here is to really listen for their answers, not yours. Opening yourself to really listen gives you a much greater opportunity to learn. When you ask others for their ideas, be eager to hear approaches and viewpoints that had never occurred to you before. And welcome those fresh perspectives with genuine enthusiasm, because they have the greatest potential to create positive change in your life.


The Least Likely to Succeed

I received a real wake-up call about the power of asking when I took an honest look at my own experience coaching swimming coaches.

After graduating from Stanford University, I had built a small, novice team into one of the largest privately-owned swimming programs in the country. Our swimmers had finished in the top three at the Junior Nationals and top ten at the Senior Nationals, with several of our kids qualifying for the Olympic trials. Over 40 of the young people I’d had the honor to coach earned college scholarships.

When I left coaching to pursue a Master’s degree, I felt great satisfaction about the accomplishments we had earned during the eight years of my tenure. But one day, a little over a year after I’d left coaching, a question occurred to me…and the answer really shook me up:

If I had been such a good coach, what happened to my assistant coaches when I left?

Ouch! Sometimes the truth can leave some major tooth marks on your ego.

The truth was, most of my assistant coaches were floundering. All were talented, bright, and caring people, yet when I had moved on, they’d become stuck. They hadn’t known quite what to do…

That is, except for one of my assistants, a young man named Jay.

For some reason, Jay had continued to grow and improve and was flourishing in his chosen field of education. And here’s the irony: When he first came to work for me, he’d been a baseball player who had never been on a swim team in his life and knew virtually nothing about competitive swimming. In fact, he’d been the least likely candidate to be a good swimming coach.

Why did this one individual excel while all the others struggled? The more I thought about this question, the clearer the answer became.

Jay was the one coach I had asked more than told.


Residual Leadership

With the other assistants, I had called all the shots. I’d told them exactly what to do and when. I’d treated them more like coaching robots than thinking, developing human beings. I hadn’t even allowed them to make mistakes because I’d cover for them. As a result, I’d never given them the chance to think creatively or to grow into their potential.

With Jay, I had been a different kind of coach. Though he had no knowledge of swimming technique, his special gift for making the sport fun for children had been apparent from the beginning. The kids always loved him and couldn’t wait to come to practice. This had filled me with great faith in Jay, and I’d found it increasingly natural to ask instead of tell.

If he came to me with a question about how to handle a particular situation, instead of answering, I’d ask, “What do you think would work best?” I held strategy sessions with him where I’d ask for his ideas about how best to develop the team. I had also “asked” Jay in a more subtle yet equally empowering way: at the meets and practices he was coaching, I would not show up! By giving him the ball and not looking over his shoulder, I’d let him know that my belief in him was strong.

When I left, he didn’t miss a beat.

The power of asking more than telling is transformative. When Jay started coaching, he was least likely to succeed. Today he is one of the most outstanding professionals in his field, a mentor who coaches other teachers in working with disabled children.

What’s more, by asking more than telling, I gained every bit as much as Jay did.

I learned ideas, perspectives, and skills from him that I use every single day, as a father and a speaker, and that make immeasurable differences for those I love.

Asking Jay made him a better leader. And it made me one, too.

BRIAN BIRO is a father, husband and coach.
He is author of
Beyond Success and Through
the Eyes of a Coach. He was the subject
of the lead story in our April 2004 issue.