8 courageous questions to lead by

Ask them and prepare for astounding results


Leading with questions takes courage for two reasons.

First, it admits you don’t have all the answers. Managers think they’re supposed to have all the answers, but leaders understand you get more from people by asking the right questions. Still, if people are looking to you to lead, it takes courage to acknowledge you’re not all-knowing.

Second, you may not like the answers. This is important. If you’re going to bring out the best and most in people by asking questions, you must listen to their answers with an open mind and heart. You cannot become defensive or hostile. If you can’t do this, you’re better off staying a manager. Becoming defensive or hostile to the answers you get will do more damage than if you never ask questions in the first place.

Commander D. Michael Abrashoff was the most junior officer in the Pacific Fleet when he took command of the USS Benfold – the near-worst performing ship in the Navy. (Photo/U.S. Navy/MC3 Nathan Burke)
Commander D. Michael Abrashoff was the most junior officer in the Pacific Fleet when he took command of the USS Benfold – the near-worst performing ship in the Navy. (Photo/U.S. Navy/MC3 Nathan Burke)

As scary as leading by questions can be, would you like to:

  • Retain your staff?
  • Be the most prepared agency in the country?
  • Reduce disciplinary actions by over 80%?
  • Reduce medical costs by over 90%?

Commander D. Michael Abrashoff did that and more all while operating under budget. While he was the most junior officer in the Pacific Fleet, he took command of the USS Benfold – the near-worst performing ship in the Navy. In 20 months, he turned it into the best performing ship – using the same crew. Asking questions and listening to and acting on their answers was one of the keys.

The questions that helped transform a ship

At the beginning of his command, Commander Abrashoff interviewed each of the USS Benfold’s 310 sailors. Think you’re busy? Imagine the demands on the commander of one of the most modern warships in the Navy. It isn’t just the demands of the ship and its sailors. There’s all the military brass folderol attendant with any high rank.

In these initial conversations, Commander Abrashoff asked three questions:

  1. What do you like best about this ship?
  2. What do you like least?
  3. What would you change if you could?

As important, he listened and acted on the ideas contained in the answers. Let’s say you did the same and you didn’t get the results you expected. What would you do next? What the Commander did takes leadership to an exalted level.

Rather than point the finger at the sailors and say to himself, “I tried asking questions, it didn’t work, back to the basics,” he asked himself three questions:

  1. Did I clearly articulate the goal I was trying to achieve?
  2. Did I give people the time and resources they needed to succeed?
  3. Did I give them enough training to get the job done properly?

Usually he found he was the issue and he took corrective action. He also questioned every norm. When asked for his approval, he asked,

Why do we do it this way?

If told, “Because it’s always done this way,” he asked,

Is there a better way?

Pretty soon, his people explained up front why it was done this way or they came up with a better way on their own.

The results? In 20 months:

  • The ship operated at 75% of its budget returning $1.4 million to the nation’s treasury.
  • Only 54% of sailors re-enlist after their second duty tour. One hundred percent of the Benfold’s career sailors re-upped. This retention saved the Navy $1.6 million.
  • The ship’s combat readiness indicators were the highest in the history of the Pacific Fleet.
  • His people were promoted at 2½ times the Navy average.
  • The Benfold crew completed the normal 52-day, pre-deployment training cycle in 19 days.
  • During a 1-year period under the previous command, there were 28 disciplinary actions and 23 sailors were discharged. During Abrashoff’s 20-month tenure, there were 5 actions and no discharges.                 
  • Under his predecessor, 31 people were detached from the ship for limited duty, mostly with complaints of bad backs. Only 2 crew members left Abrashoff’s command for health reasons.

What is clear is that everyone wanted to be part of this winning team. Think of the shortened pre-deployment training cycle. This team was so mission-driven they worked to leave the comfort and security of port early.

You and your officers can do it

Be courageous. Ask questions, listen, act, introspect, give your people what they need to realize their potential and stand back. Commander Abrashoff is clear: "I didn't turn the ship around – my crew did that. What I did was to create an environment where they felt safe, empowered and supported. When you do that, anything is possible."

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