To foster leadership development, let’s give less advice, let’s ask more questions.

First: Listen

Let's listen attentively, without judgment, to what others are uncovering in front of us, humbly and courageously sharing with us their struggles, whether facing a problem, aspiring to get better at what they love doing, or simply vaguely languishing.

If we have ever tried not to interrupt others when they explain their difficulties in words, and to resist the urge to give advice, restrain the tendency to cling to what should be thought, said, or done to solve the problem, make the best decision or handle the situation, then we know that this is not an easy task. We enjoy giving advice; it makes us feel like we are doing something.

Let's consider the advice of not giving too much advice.

Let's practice fostering spaces of sufficient trust where others can feel empowered to openly explore their options, draw their conclusions and make their own choices. 

Let Socrates and Dr. Watson inspire us: instead of providing more answers, let's ask more questions.

Embracing negative capability

Let's become better at supporting others to learn about being in uncertain and stressful situations without providing a 'fight or flight' automatic reaction, to welcome and tolerate mysteries, and think through their doubts, ambivalence, and sometimes confusion.

Embracing the dialectical tension between a sense of the unknown and one's personal convictions, learning to respond rather than reacting to every "stimulus" one encounters, that's what the poet John Keats may have meant when he first coined the term "negative capability" in a letter he wrote to his brothers in 1817. This idea, which centers on suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it, remains as essential today as it was back then.

"I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think."– Attributed to Socrates (circa 470 BC)

Asking questions

Through questions, we gently guide our interlocutors toward a solution that neither they nor we know about. We support their thinking, encourage them to express themselves, and verbalize a solution that could be meaningful and useful for them here and now.

"I believe that we cannot live better than in seeking to become better, nor more agreeably than having a clear conscience." ― Attributed to Socrates (circa 470 BC)

We investigate the situation together as partners, private investigators working on the same case. Good ideas often come from conversations. As we share viewpoints, we learn from each other. We also allow some space for controversial conversations and constructive conflict: "I'll tell you what I think, and you'll tell me what you disagree with."

"I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me, I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth. Not that you are entirely wrong in this instance." ―Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson (early 20th century)

Looking at the big picture

If we aspire to truly develop leadership, gain a bigger perspective on what's going on in the organization and become less entrapped in unquestioned and partially conscious theories, let's dare to examine the premises that underlie and guide behavior. Let's bring to "the surface" underlying management ideologies that structure the thinking on a daily basis; the most enduring one often appears to still be scientific management, enthusiastic about the idea of transforming craft production into mass production, and which requires a high level of managerial control over employee work practices.

"What kind of questions do you usually ask yourself during the week? What do they tell you about yourself in your organization?"

Being bold

Let's have the courage to explore questions that have no absolute answers: "Does your leadership matter?", "What impact do you wish to have?", "What are you doing to have impact?"

"What is worth fighting for?"… Or maybe better: "What is worth living for?"

Of course, each of us could take that path alone, but we guess that even introverted mountaineers and individualistic climbers in cycling know that it can be helpful not to travel by themselves if they wish to reach a summit. Even a small team of two is energizing and offers support.

"What are the important questions you would like us to address together?"

Sometimes, understanding one's own questions is half the answer.

When we genuinely care for others, when we are present for and with others, we accompany them in their exploration of new landscapes, where curiosity is embraced, contradictions surfaced, and complexity is recognized. We help them reveal their character and become freer.

It is not a matter of simply asking questions without personal interaction. It is an "exchange of proximity," which occurs in an empathetic relationship and is built progressively in search of meaning.

In the end, perhaps more important than getting definitive answers, it is the quality of the human relationship that is created that matters. It allows our interlocutors to experience authenticity as something dynamic, to accept more realistically who they are, and to develop and cultivate sincerity with respect and care in how they relate to others in life. Their relationships become more rewarding, and they feel more in harmony with their environment and the world. Eventually, they will embody their own unique leadership more consciously and courageously.

"It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt." ― Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson (early 20th century)

About: Frédéric Bagutti is an organizational psychologist with more than fifteen years of corporate experience in multinational organizations. He holds a postgraduate degree in human resources from the University of Geneva and an executive master in consulting and coaching for change from INSEAD.

Throughout his career, he has consulted and coached senior executives and high-potential individuals, focusing on being a catalyst for human and organizational development.

For the past eight years, he has been responsible for leadership development for a renowned luxury goods company in Switzerland.

A native of Switzerland with extended family in Spain, the US, and the Dominican Republic, he lives with his wife in Geneva.

Amateur of street photography and enthusiast of contemporary poetry and mechanical watches.