To be a better leader, ask more questions and practise silence

Posted on 14 Sep 2022

By Adele Stowe-Lindner, general manager, Institute of Community Directors Australia

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Silence can be powerful, writes Adele Stowe-Lindner

Organisations – and the communities in which they operate – tend to be complicated, even messy, built as they are on the foundations of often passionate, committed people with differing interests and ideas. Board leadership means navigating between many, often, competing stakeholders.

Adele Stowe-Lindner

How best, then, to make decisions?

A lot of leaders look like naturals, always the first to step up in a crisis and help steer a safe and certain course.

But I’m here to tell you those people have built up those skills through hard work, often over a lifetime, and that we can all learn to lead.

One powerful technique common to many “natural” leaders is staying silent.

Giving ourselves just a few more seconds to think before forming an opinion, making a decision or responding to a stakeholder enables us to consider: what might I be missing? Might I have bias in this situation? Do I need to ask another question?

When we stay silent, we also give our stakeholders space in which to articulate their needs.

Holding silence in fact goes to the very heart of the board’s leadership role, for when it comes to governance and oversight, one of the key powers and responsibilities of a board is not to provide answers but to ask questions.

This is in contrast to the role of the staff, who are busy doing, executing, answering, responding and carrying out. Often, the staff have more subject expertise than the board in the day to day running of the NFP.

Board questions are fundamental in ensuring that the board understands decisions related to budget, hiring and culture. Without good oversight, these are the areas that can get an organisation into hot water.

Board leadership is nuanced, with board members bringing to their role the life and work expertise they have gained elsewhere.

That enables board members to take a bird’s eye view and to ask: “Have you thought of this? Did you notice that? Have you seen this? What is our future if we keep going as we are?”

Asking these powerful questions (and listening to the answers) enables leaders to lead an organisation much more effectively than if they passively receive large (and expensive) piles of advice.

Of all the leadership traits, it’s possible that curiosity is one of the greatest. Finding the right balance between maintaining judicious silence and asking excellent questions will satisfy both your curiosity and your constituents.

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