Leadership is Asking Others to Answer Their Own Questions


One of the individuals I follow on Twitter is Simon Sinek. Check out https://www.ted.com/speakers/simon_sinek if you are not familiar with his work.

Each day I receive a “dose of inspiration” from Simon. The inspirational quote on March 4 was: Leadership isn’t answering the questions others ask. Leadership is asking others to answer their own questions.

 What a great quote, but how does one move from trying to answer everyone’s questions to getting them to answer their own questions? Here are a couple of examples from my own administrative experiences.

When I was a new middle school principal, I was very visible in the school. I walked the halls during passing periods. During the lunch periods I was in the cafeteria talking with students. Before and after school, you could find me out in front of the school talking with students, bus drivers, and parents. It was not unusual during these times for someone to approach me with a problem they’d like me to solve. I quickly pulled out my steno pad (It was the 1990s.), wrote it down, and said that I would get back with them. By the end of the day, I had a pretty extensive “To Do List” in front of me. By the end of the week, the list was huge and impossible to accomplish.

It was a little overwhelming to say the least. Burnout was in my near future.

I was very fortunate to have a mentor who suggested that instead of trying to answer everyone’s questions, I try a different approach. When someone approached me with a problem, I should listen to their problem, acknowledge the problem, and then ask if we could meet later (as long as it wasn’t an emergency situation), and ask the person to bring to this meeting two possible solutions to the problem.

What a great suggestion!

Now I was getting others to answer their own questions. Of course there were times when their suggestions were way off target, but by asking individuals to talk through how their suggestions would play out, this often led to viable solutions. For the most part, individuals were able to answer their own questions. Todd Whitaker calls this “Shifting the Monkey.”   This created more time for me to focus on the “Big Rocks” in my school.

Here’s another example. Think about teacher observations and the post-observation conference. If we have done our job correctly, our teachers should have a strong understanding of what effective teaching looks like. Danielson and Marzano have created teaching frameworks that provide a research-based set of components of instruction. Administrators and faculty should take the time to study the framework, observe videos and each other, and talk about the model, so that everyone has a clear understanding of what effective instruction looks like.

If teachers and administrators understand this, the principal can be much more effective at his or her job.

Once teachers understand the model, they can self-reflect and answer their own questions. The principal still observes, but in the post-observation conference the principal simply asks the teacher to reflect on the lesson observed. For example, “based on our teaching framework, how would you rate yourself in this area?”   Or, “what could you do to improve this component of the lesson?”

Teachers could be charged with coming up with their own questions to ask themselves as a precursor to the post-observation conference. Instead of the principal asking why a specific student is not learning, the teacher is asking the question. The principal serves as a facilitator to help the teacher think through possible solutions. The principal can also be a resource for the teacher. For example, identifying other teachers for the teacher to observe to help improve his/her practice in this area.

The goal should be for everyone in our schools to be self-reflective, always asking the question, “how do I get better?” The key to improving is not for the principal to answer that question, but for the individual to answer the question. That’s why I love the action research model. Individuals try things; they evaluate the results and based on those results try something new, always looking to improve their practice.

School improvement planning is no different. It can’t be just the principal trying to figure out how to improve the school; it has to be the entire staff working together. It’s always about trying to answer four questions:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How do we get there?
  4. How do we know when we get there?

That’s the beauty of leadership teams and professional learning communities. Together we answer these questions.


Linda Marrs-Morford, Ph.D

Director, Indiana Principal Leadership Institute