The Power Of Question Thinking

May 26, 2014 6 Min Read
The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

– Albert Einstein

No one expounds the significance of questions more effectively than Dr Marilee Adams, president and founder of the Inquiry Institute.

Adams, author of three books that focus on questions and mindsets, is also an executive coach, professional speaker and adjunct professor of leadership at the American University, teaching leadership in the School of Public Affairs.

With a degree in psychology, Adams was a therapist for many years during which she learnt a lot about thinking and relationships. She subsequently wrote her first book entitled The Art of the Question, a cognitive-behavioural psychology textbook.

“I then decided to take what I had learnt beyond psychology and to the world of organisations, businesses into teaching and coaching. My decision worked out very well,” she recalls.

Her second book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, is an international best-selling leadership coaching business book which made its way also into education and is touted as a must-read for anyone wanting a path approach to crafting their present and future.

Subsequent to writing this book, Marilee started getting requests from colleges and universities to do work with teachers and contributing ideas to the school systems. “I had a lot of fun!” she quips.

Her latest book Teaching That Changes Lives is about cultivating a learner mindset for breakthroughs in schools.

The Power of Question Thinking

According to Adams, question thinking is a theory that suggests that thinking occurs as an internal question and answer process. It is a way of conceptualising and operationalising thinking, speaking, and listening.

You realise that you’re asking yourselves questions all the time and the questions you ask yourself pretty much shape how you feel, think, behave and relate.

She adds: “It therefore becomes very motivating to learn how to identify the questions that are already there. Then you can decide whether those are the ones that you would want to shape the future.”

Giving an example on why answers don’t change the world, questions do, she continues: “Right now, while we’re having a conversation, I’m guessing that you’re asking yourself questions such as ‘what would be of interest to viewers? What do they want to learn? What questions should I ask that would bring out the most interesting and useful advice from Marilee?”

And the way you answer those questions dictates the way you communicate with me.

When people understand the question-driven nature of their thinking and are able to alter their questions accordingly, it becomes a skill that anyone can learn and use. Not just in leadership, but in all aspects of your lives, she comments.

Importance of managing thinking and mindset in leadership

There is a difference between “asking” and “using” questions. Very few people understand the impact of questions they ask, and the importance of the structure and mindset from which the questions are asked, she says.

“The questions come alive with their impact. Questions are inherently relational, so when I understand all that, I will pay a lot of attention to the structure and impact of my questions and how that makes a relationship work,” she explains.

Adams elaborates that the definition of leaders does not only encompass senior leaders, and the whole concept of leadership should not only be by position, but also by influence.

Stressing the important role of leaders in empowering those around them, she says that the more leaders can manage their thinking and mindset, the better they’re going to be.

Asked on how being a therapist for 25 years has influenced her work and moulded her to be who she is today, Adams said it gave her a very deep understanding of how people think, what motivates them, what is required for real change to happen and the superficial changes.

The life lessons were easily imported into the business or organisational space. I believe that what I’m able to do and see today is richer because of what I’ve been taught by so many people during my days in practice.

In her book Teaching That Changes Lives, Adams’ focus is on the mindset of teachers instead of students.

So much of the work in the world of education focuses on students. I’m reversing that.

Acknowledging the role of teachers as “noble”, “incredibly important” and “difficult”, Marilee feels that teachers need the relevant tools to manage their own mindsets and maintain their own equilibrium in the classroom, not only for their own benefit but also in preparing themselves as role models for students.

Teachers are models of patience, good thinking and collaboration. Research shows that professional development for teachers is one of the biggest factors that make a difference in the development of students. That’s the purpose I planned to achieve by writing this book.

Adams’ Nuggets of Wisdom

For a CEO, Adams has this advice: “This might sound funny, but I want you to be asking yourself: ‘Am I leading from ego or am I leading from service?’”

According to Adams, that question will tell a person a lot about what they are doing and the depth of it.

She points out that these days, many leaders worry about the short-term and apparent result. “Focusing on long-term goals, good communication, thinking systematically and really listening and empowering the people around you – these are the imperative skills for the 21st century leaders,” she stresses.

As for her advice to fresh graduates who have a degree tucked under the arm and the world under their feet, she sees the need for young leaders to have the necessary leadership and professional development.

Sharing on a case on point, she says: “I started a foundation called the Berrett-Koehler (BK) Foundation together with my mission-driven publisher in San Francisco (whose published books were mainly about creating a world that works for all). Our main purpose is to empower emerging young leaders, especially in the non-profit world, who might otherwise get little or no training, development and mentoring experiences.”

With a small grant from the BK Foundation, Adams started working with an elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, specifically with two of their leaders – Camilla Lopez, the principal and Kevin Lohela, the academic dean, who are both below 35 years of age.

The leaders were given awards and attended workshops as the first step in a much larger process – to implement a bigger plan to bring the questioning mindset methodology into the classroom and begin a culture change initiative.

At the workshops, they learnt leadership concepts which were subsequently passed down to their employees in school, and both leaders and employees were able to plan together on how they can bring the methodology into the classroom to create culture change.

Through the process with the leaders and the staff, we encountered some difficult issues, but the leaders were able to turn the entire thing around and used those difficult situations to learn from, which was so exciting!

To summarise her advice to young leaders, Adams urges young leaders to ask themselves these questions over and over again:

  • What can I learn from this?
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • How am I empowering the people around me?
  • How can I listen better?
  • What do people and circumstances have to teach me?
  • What is the best that I can offer to give my team the future that they want and deserve? When asked about tips to craft, ask or think about questions, she admits that it would take a long time to speak on this, but concludes with two interesting quotes:

Great results begin with great questions.
Every question missed is a potential crisis waiting to happen.

For the full interview and other Leaderonomics Show interviews, click here

Share This


Tags: Women & Leadership

Cindy is a passionate corporate legal advisor and an avid runner. She believes that grit, perseverance and sheer will power can move mountains and loves learning from leaders who have walked the path. Writing is her way to share knowledge and inspire others through the footsteps of those who have gone before.

You May Also Like

male leader assessing his leadership

Take a Look at Yourself in the Leadership Mirror

By Manfred Kets De Vries. How we see ourselves is often very different from how we appear to others. Effective leaders need to improve their competencies as the captain/coach of their team and need to genuinely assess their own strengths.

Dec 21, 2022 5 Min Read

Group of people running a race (finishing the race)

Finishing Our Race Well

Justin Ooi, Learning and Growth Partner at Leaderonomics, discuses why it is important not just to start well but also to finish well.

Dec 31, 2018 20 Min Podcast


Is It Better to be Feared or Loved?

Founder and CEO of Leaderonomics, Roshan Thiran speaks to For The Win (FTW) host, Melisa Idris on this long-standing Machiavellian predicament that leaders face in their daily dealings with their teams.

Mar 18, 2019 26 Min Video

Be a Leader's Digest Reader