The Art of Governing Through Questions

Socrates had it right: Dealing with the problems public leaders face requires knowing how and what to ask.
March 25, 2019 AT 6:15 AM
classic statue of Socrates close up
Socrates was a philosopher in ancient Greece. (Shutterstock)
By Jorrit de Jong  |  Contributor
Faculty director of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program
By Fernando Monge  |  Contributor
A senior associate with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative

When citizens ask mayors questions, they expect answers. Elected officials, in turn, want to be seen as strong leaders who are quick with solutions. Mayors are also tasked with putting out fires, both figuratively and literally, that directly affect the lives of their citizens.

Yet to produce the right answers, many problems require formulating the right questions. We work with mayors from around the world at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative to equip them with tools to lead high-performing, innovative cities. Rather than providing all the answers, our approach focuses on helping mayors seek better questions.

Before we can begin to develop the most effective questions, however, we need to understand the different categories of problems that city leaders face. Keith Grint, a professor of public leadership at the Warwick Business School, has provided a useful framework. Making a playground safer, for example, may be called a tame problem, one that has been solved before and that can be tackled using known solutions. Problems that stem from a crisis, such as the flooding of a neighborhood, are critical ones that tend to be self-evident and have a clear time boundary for resolution. A third category of problem, such as reducing violent crime, is much harder to tackle. These wicked problems are intractable, entangled and multifaceted, and they require leadership -- the kind that Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School has labeled adaptive leadership.

Exercising adaptive leadership requires acknowledging that one does not have all the answers. In 2010, then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu responded to his city's abysmal murder rate by embracing uncertainty, and through a process of inquiry -- drawing out the right questions -- guided his team toward a more nuanced understanding of crime patterns and causes. The result was initiatives that were more effective. Between 2011 and 2015, the city's murder rate dropped by 18 percent. Since then, crime rates seem to have gone up again, but the city can now apply a more inquisitive approach to understand the causes of upsurges.

Over the years, other public leaders have shared with us their urge to develop their inquiry skills. While they seldom get rewarded for acknowledging uncertainty, they know that the tacit knowledge that lies within and outside organizations is invaluable and that questions are the ultimate tool to unlock the potential for innovation. Leaders can also use questions to hold their teams and others to account, to find shared purpose, to mobilize or to motivate. But while they acknowledge the importance of questions, they also know that not all queries are equally effective. There is an art to asking questions, and the leaders dealing with very hard problems in government are eager to master it.

Fortunately, there's much knowledge to draw on, from both modern research and the thinkers of the past. Socrates used the power of questions more than two millennia ago, and we still use his Socratic Method, which employs an exchange of questions and answers to stimulate the emergence of ideas by challenging underlying assumptions. During the Enlightenment, Voltaire deemed questions as the quintessential intellectual attribute, positing that we should "judge a man by his questions, not his answers."

Julie Boatright Wilson, who studies social-services delivery at the Kennedy School, refers to "Question Zero": the one that clearly states what a leader wants to be held accountable for accomplishing and in turn defines both the mission and the strategy. Amy Edmondson, a leadership scholar at the Harvard Business School, explains how, to achieve that goal, the leader may want to use widening questions to understand a problem, elicit ideas or generate creativity, or, conversely, use deepening questions to enable a dive into the causes or details of a line of inquiry.

Understanding the uses, techniques, and types of questions, and adapting them to leaders' goals, are at the center of the art of asking questions. Once Tulsa, Okla., Mayor G.T. Bynum realized that "the time I have with our senior leadership team could be so much more than just an opportunity for them to tell me if something bad was expected to happen in the week ahead, I started asking each person at the meeting to report their high and low for the week -- be it in work or in their personal life."

This, Bynum said, "gives everyone in the room an awareness of our successes and our challenges as an organization, but also the opportunity to support one another during times of personal difficulty or to celebrate personal milestones. It makes us a better team."

The art of governing through questions cannot be reduced to a ready-made list, and mastering it takes time and practice. We like to cluster the approach in three practices:

Thinking: What kind of problem are we facing, what kind of role can leadership play, what do we know or don't know, and what questions may help us bring in diverse perspectives to diagnose the problem and identify solutions?

Asking: Think about timing, teaming and framing -- when to ask, whom to ask and how to ask. Train yourself in using good follow-up questions and conversation techniques that help create useful, productive conversations.

Listening: Engaging in a process of inquiry requires genuine curiosity, active listening, and demonstrating humility and vulnerability.

In this era of assertion without reflection, we need the wisdom of questions. Only with leaders willing to embrace uncertainty and steer governments with the artful use of questions will we be able to tackle our hardest challenges.