• Pat Libby

When it comes to leading: ask, don’t tell

Note from Pat: I wrote this BC (before Covid) but I think the lessons apply whether we’re working virtually or in person.

Two of my former students called for advice within the past few weeks, and even though they were in different situations, I told them the same thing:

When it comes to leading: ask, don’t tell.

One, an executive director, found herself preparing for an exit meeting with the Board chair. She had been in the job for only a year and felt humiliated that she had been asked to leave.

She wanted to understand what went wrong?

She had been frustrated with the Board on several fronts. For instance, she consistently complained to them about members not showing-up – at all – for several working committee meetings.

I asked her if she ever asked the Board:

  • Why had those committees been established in the first place?

  • Whether they thought the committees were still necessary?

  • Could the time and energy of those board members be deployed in different and better ways?

She hadn’t.

The more we talked, the more she realized that she needed to ask, not tell (and certainly, not complain!).

She knew that Board members were voting with their feet. Yet she didn’t ask why.

The second alum was starting in a new executive director role – not her first – and called to ask how she should “take charge” of her first meeting which was about strategic planning.

I told her that she needed to begin her work with the group by asking questions.

She needed to find out the key questions they wanted answered during the planning process, and talk through the options they could pursue to find the answers to those questions.


Edgar Schein – arguably one of the most brilliant minds in the field of organizational management – wrote a terrific book: Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.

In it, he describes Humble Inquiry as “the skill and the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answers, of building a relationship that is based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

In other words, you need to be genuinely interested in others and in the outcome of the answer to your question.

Being a boss doesn’t mean that you need to be bossy.

Alas, this is a trap that many new managers fall into.

Carolyn Slaski, writing in Forbes, suggests a three-pronged approach:

Pause before you tell; Ask better questions; Listen with impact

In this day of extreme political polarization, when we’re struggling to understand how other people think – and worse, defining people as “other,” we need to stop and get back to the art of asking questions in a sincere effort to hear the answers.

That simple lesson will be effective at home, in the workplace, and in our communities.

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Pat Libby is a consultant that helps nonprofits with organizational strategy, board restructuring, and executive searches. Pat has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations since 1978.

Get in touch if you have any questions!


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