For best results, ask better questions

Leadership development is one of Scouting’s most important effects on its members. Ask anyone who was a Scout as a youth and they’ll probably tell you that in addition to learning how to camp, hike and respect the outdoors, one of the most important takeaways is that it helped them become a better leader.

What defines a leader? Reams have been written on the subject, but one of the best definitions comes from an item that surfaced in the early 1930s comparing a boss to a leader. The one we probably hear most often is A boss says “go” – a leader says “let’s go”. 

Among the list of comparisons are two that help to define the relationship between the leader and the led:

The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.

The boss knows how it’s done; the leader shows how.

Coaching and mentoring skills involve more than telling someone how to do something and expecting them to do what you say. The value of a Scoutmaster guiding, rather than directing, the senior patrol leader and patrol leaders’ council has been explored in great depth. Scouts won’t learn how to lead by being told what to do any more than one trying to learn how to ride a bicycle by reading a book about it.

The techniques that a successful Scoutmaster uses to develop leadership in his Scouts also apply to adults. To a certain extent, the Scoutmaster also leads the adults by defining their roles with respect to the troop program. The committee chair more directly leads the adult volunteers by defining their roles on the committee and giving the resources they need to succeed, in much the same way as the Scoutmaster develops leadership in the Scouts.

It stands to reason that telling others about leadership has less value and is less effective than enabling them to find their own path to leadership. And the way we enable and guide them is to ask them insightful questions that allow them to find the answers.

What’s interesting about this process is that asking open-ended, thought-provoking questions can not only guide others to find solutions but it can change their way of thinking. It is in this change – it’s called neuroplasticity – where we find leadership developing. As leaders develop, their ways of thinking change. They look at challenges differently. They find new ways to look at issues, and their minds open up to the process of problem-solving and engaging others in moving toward a common goal. Executive coach Mary Jo Asmus details the three-step process that happens when you ask insightful – not instructional – questions.

Certainly, some team functions rely on direction from the leader. For example, you wouldn’t play twenty questions with your treasurer about the financial report – you’d just ask him to prepare a report for the next meeting. But on a subject like fundraising options, you’d define the outcome and the treasurer would use his resources and best judgment to bring the options to the table. When at a quandary, however, asking good questions can help guide them to evaluate the options and reach their own conclusions. And when they do, be sure to support and validate their work.

Leadership development is kind of a squishy subject. There’s a lot of room for different techniques to work. But asking good questions, rather than just providing answers, can help turn the rank-and-file into superstar leaders.


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