As executives, we’ve been trained to have all the answers. As leaders, however, often the best thing we can do is ask questions instead.

This year, a poem changed my leadership. Let me share the poem with you—and don’t worry, it’s a haiku, so this will be brief:

Talk less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
as you think it is.

That poem, from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit got stuck in my head. It was easy to memorize and hard to forget; as a consultant and leadership coach, I found myself thinking of the poem again and again as I spoke with clients. They would present a problem, and I’d open my mouth to share a solution. And then I’d stop myself, take a deep breath, and ask a question instead of giving an answer.

What I discovered was remarkable: one of two things almost always happened. Either by asking a question I learned some new piece of information that made my original advice irrelevant, or by asking a question of my client, it led them to a new awareness that was helpful in addressing the situation. It turned out that my questions were often more powerful than my insights.

Stop Giving Answers

As executives, we’ve been trained to have all the answers. As leaders, however, often the best thing we can do is ask questions instead.

Dwight Strayer is now the Chief Strategy Officer for data center company Service Express. But when I interviewed him a few years ago he recalled when he first took over the company’s service group.

He had a line out the door of technicians with questions. “And I had all the answers,” he says. “It felt great.” But then, about a week into his tenure, Dwight noticed he was exhausted—the stress of having all the answers physically impacted his health. So he stopped answering questions and started asking them instead—what do you think?

I call this teaching your team to show you the umbrellas. As in: Don’t tell me it’s raining. Show me your umbrella.

Dwight got so good at asking for the umbrella that his team learned to solve problems for themselves. He built leadership and technical capacity in his service team. Then one day a technician called with an urgent problem. Dwight asked his usual questions, probing to help the technician uncover the answer for himself. The guy was good—he’d tried all the predictable fixes. So Dwight gave him the answer, walking him through the commands to type in.

There was silence on the other end of the line, until the technician asked in disbelief, “Are you serious? You know how to fix this?”

Yes, Dwight told him. “And don’t tell anyone,” Dwight made him promise. He didn’t want to lose the best teaching tool he had: questions.

Teaching Through Questions

Research shows that humans often learn best by asking—and answering—questions. If you want to develop your team, build leadership and strategic capacity in others, and strengthen relationships and understanding, there are few more valuable things you can do than get in the practice of offering fewer solutions and instead asking more questions.

It’s been said that the seven most powerful words in leadership are, “I don’t know. What do you think?” We develop people into leaders by building their capacity—and often, turning the questions they bring back on them is the best way to accelerate that learning.

When you want to develop leaders, questions are the best tool in your toolbox. That’s the lesson I learned from poetry, and experience, this year.

Ad Lucem Group’s experienced consultants can help you ask powerful questions that lead to uncommon insights. Need to design strategy, build leadership capacity, or launch a new initiative? Reach out for a free half-hour consultation. 


Amber Johnson, PhD

Amber Johnson, PhD

Senior Culture & Strategy Advisor

As a facilitator and consultant, Amber helps companies connect their purpose to their core strategies and behaviors in order to shape culture and drive business results. Amber has global leadership experience with World Vision and the US Peace Corps and has served as a leadership development, organization change, and strategy consultant to organizations including digital marketing agencies, software firms, universities, health care systems, manufacturing companies, utilities, and non-profit organizations. She is certified in the Appreciative Inquiry methodology and has 20 years of experience helping organizations drive change and strategy through human-centered design. Amber previously served as the Chief Communications Officer for Benedictine University’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership, where she oversaw thought leadership, including publishing four eBooks. She is a regular contributor at, where she writes about culture, strategic planning, and building positive organizations. Amber earned a Ph.D. in Values-Driven Leadership from Benedictine University, with a dissertation focused on the success factors of leading global change initiatives.

Learn more about Amber here.

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