20 Effective Leadership Questions: the Power to Motivate and Inspire

20 Effective leadership questions: the power to motivate and inspire

Effective leadership questions are at the heart of great leadership.

This is because great leadership is relational, not transactional.

As leadership expert Michael Cavanagh contends, “the quality of the conversation determines the quality of the relationships and the quality of the relationships determines the quality of the organisational system”.

And, in my view, it is the quality of the questions and the quality of the listening that determine the quality of the conversation.

Effective leadership questions can generate confidence, loyalty, motivation and development (Click to Tweet). These kinds of question:

  • arise from genuine curiosity
  • enable a staff member to show what they know or what they can do
  • demonstrate trust
  • are coaching questions
  • are collaborative
  • are generative – i.e they contribute to a joint effort to create a solution
  • build relationships
  • inspire action.

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20 of the most effective leadership questions

How good any question is really depends upon the context – and how well the answer is listened to.

But here are some examples of leadership questions that, in the right context, are likely to be genuinely effective:

  1. “How are you enjoying working on project x?”
  2. “What are you looking to achieve in the next part of your career and how can I help you?”
  3. “What do you think our next steps should be here?”
  4. “Why don’t you come back to me with your thoughts when you’ve had a chance to test some solutions?”
  5. “What do you need in order to make progress?”
  6. “What can I do to help you with this?”
  7. “How do you think I should handle this?”
  8. “What would you do in my position?”
  9. “What do I need to know?”
  10. “What else do we need to know?”
  11. “Are we missing something here?”
  12. “What assumptions are we making and how might they be wrong?”
  13. “What are some options you’d like to try?”
  14. “What would happen if you do nothing about this?
  15. “What is really worrying you about this?”
  16. “How can we use this as an opportunity?”
  17. “Which of your strengths do you think are relevant here?”
  18. “What barriers do we need to remove?”
  19. “How can we best achieve this?”
  20. “What would be your preferred solution?”
  21. “What can we both learn from this?”

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Self-leadership questions

Of course leadership is not only about the relationship with others. A large part of effective leadership comes from reflection – the dialogue the leader has with him or herself.

These are some of the most effective self-reflective leadership questions, many of which are inspired by the thinking of Jennifer Garvey-Berger:

  • What do I believe about this situation?
  • How could I be wrong?
  • How could this be explained in a different way?
  • How can this disagreement serve to strengthen the relationship?
  • What can I enable here?
  • What can enable me?
  • What assumptions am I making?
  • What assumptions are others making?
  • What can I learn from this?
  • What else does this connect with?
  • What are the other perspectives at play here? How does my perspective differ from those?
  • What does not need my intervention?
  • What do I not need to try to control?

Poor leadership questions

Poor leaders ask questions that are mainly about themselves. Poor leadership questions:

  • are statements dressed up as questions
  • emphasise power differentials
  • probe for weaknesses in the individual’s skills or knowledge
  • are designed to elicit the answer the leader wants
  • are closed and contain assumptions that lead to a predetermined answer
  • fail to acknowledge complexity and ambiguity
  • are demotivating and undermine confidence
  • Focus on irrelevant weaknesses

10 of the least effective leadership questions

Example of ineffective leadership questions are:

  1. “Why did you let that happen?”
  2. “Why didn’t you do x or y?”
  3. “What on earth were you thinking?”
  4. “Why couldn’t you see that this would happen?”
  5. “Why don’t we do it this way then?”
  6. “Isn’t this something you should have known how to do?”
  7. “Why should I listen to you?”
  8. “But why didn’t you do [what I would have done]?”
  9. “I know that you delivered on time and budget, but why did you allow Steve to take leave when he did?”
  10. “Did you not know what I would have wanted?”


You’ll no doubt have had the experience of being on the end of both ineffective and effective leadership questions of the kind mentioned in this post. I know I have.

But I only have to think of my immediate emotional reaction to poor questioning – dismay, lost confidence, demotivation – to remind me of the need to make sure that my own questions prompt the right kinds of response.

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