The Power of the Open-Ended Question

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Dan Coughlin

Want a definition of leadership? Here’s a long version:

Leadership is influencing other people’s behaviors in ways that generate better sustainable desired results for the organization and the people in it.

Here’s a short version:

Leadership is influencing people.

Leadership has nothing to do with titles, income, authority, gender, height, race, or labels of any kind. It has a great deal to do with being able to influence how other people think. One of the most powerful tools of influence is the open-ended question. This effective leadership tool can be applied at all levels in an organization.

Leadership at All Levels

Chairman of the Board

The chairman e-mails the CEO and says, “What have you found to be the most effective initiatives that our competition is doing right now, and what can we do to counteract each of them? I would like to discuss your answer in two weeks.” Imagine the impact that question will have on the CEO’s behaviors and the members of his or her staff.

By selecting this question, the chairman has made it clear that he wants a laser focus on the competition and ways to thwart their most effective projects. He doesn’t have to tell anyone what to do. Just by asking that question, he has had a direct impact on the behaviors of the key employees in the organization.

Senior Executive

At the beginning of the annual strategic planning retreat, the CEO of the group turns to her staff, and asks, “How would you describe the story of what our organization wants to achieve next year and what we will do to achieve it? I would like to hear from each of you.”

In doing so, this CEO forces each person to clarify what he or she believes the organization’s strategy should be for the next year. After every one has taken a stab at answering that question, she can say, “Now let’s discuss what we’ve just heard, and together clarify what we believe to be the most effective strategic story for next year.”

Midlevel Manager

The role of the midlevel manager is to plan the tactics that will have the most effective impact within the organization’s strategy. Consequently, he can simply ask a series of questions to gather the best thinking of his direct reports. These might include the following:

“Our strategy outlines the importance of extraordinary customer service. What three things can our department do to enhance the quality of customer service we consistently deliver?

“What obstacles do we face in delivering extraordinary customer service, and how can we overcome each of them?”

These types of questions create a massive focus on planning and execution.

Front-Line Associate

An hourly worker on the front line can influence the way his or her manager thinks with a clear, insightful question such as, “Our customers consistently say our products perform like a ride on a merry-go-round. Their performance is up and down, up and down. What can we do to increase the consistency with which our products perform?” This question gets at the root of what customers are talking about.

New Employee

Being new provides the power of innocence. A new employee can ask why things are done a certain way without offending anyone, as long as the tone of his or her voice is innocent and not sarcastic. For example, a new employee can say, “In our orientation we talked a lot about the core value of curiosity. Why is that so important to our company’s future, and how does it play out in the actual day-to-day working situations?” That open-ended question can really cause open-minded senior managers to reflect on what they are looking for in their employees.

Exercise to Enhance Leadership at All Levels

Leadership skills can be developed and implemented by anyone in an organization. Here’s a two-step exercise for you to consider:

1. Look around you.

Study people at all levels in your organization. Which ones are effectively influencing the people around them? Study their behaviors and the way they communicate. Remove the title, and simply examine how they interact with other people. You will soon begin to notice that titles don’t make leaders. Leadership skill, and the lack of leadership skills, can be seen at every level.

2. Develop your skills.

Work on influencing people around you. Every day work to influence the people with more authority, less authority, and the same amount of authority as you. At the end of each day, ask yourself these questions,

“Whom did I try to influence today?”
“How did I try to influence these people?”
“What worked well?”
“What did not work well?”
“What did I learn?”
“What will I do tomorrow to try to more effectively influence other people?”

3. Develop other people’s leadership skills.
Once you realize that leadership has nothing to do with titles or other labels, you can begin to develop leadership skills in other people. Here’s one step in that process. Ask the other person, “How can you influence other people in ways that will improve the value that we offer to our customers?” With this simple question, you will help the other person focus on how to be an effective leader. After he or she throws out a few ideas, you can offer a few of your own suggestions.

Regardless of your level in an organization, you can both provide leadership and help to develop leaders. This is one of the keys to accelerating sustainable improvement in results.

About The Author(s)

Dan Coughlin is a business keynote speaker, management consultant, and author of Accelerate: 20 Practical Lessons to Boost Business Momentum. He has been quoted in USA Today, the New York Times, and Investor’s Business Daily. Dan’s clients include Coca-Cola, Toyota, Boeing, Marriott, McDonald’s, AT&T, American Bar Association, and the St. Louis Cardinals. He speaks on entrepreneurial habits, quality, leadership, branding, sales, and innovation. His Website is