Leading Questions: Reflection as a Habit of Mind

Barbara Mackoff, Ed.D.
Owner, Barbara Mackoff, Ed.D., Inc.
Seattle, Washington
Featured Speaker, 2008 APWA Congress

Editor's Note: Barbara Mackoff is one of the Featured Speakers at the 2008 APWA Congress in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her session "Leadership is a Habit of Mind" takes place at 2:00 p.m. Monday, August 18 (and is repeated on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.). For more information on our upcoming Congress, please visit our website at www.apwa.net/Meetings/Congress/2008.

Leaders are susceptible to what I call the Woody Allen problem. This refers to the comedian's description of how he flunked his philosophy exam in college by looking into the soul of the person sitting next to him.

Similarly, public works leaders operate in a climate of leadership by bestseller with books and articles encouraging them to look into the leadership of the leader of the moment.

Yet I have found that the most exceptional leaders are those who leverage lessons from the relationships and events of their own lives. Their capacity to ask questions creates a unique leadership—a wisdom born of experience.

These leaders display a consistent thought pattern of reflection as a habit of mind by asking leading questions.

Psychologist David Cooperrider has noted that questions are fateful. The questions we ask drive the solution. A question is a moment of choice—one that holds the possibility of action and positive change. When leaders reflect rather than ruminate about challenges and problems, they move toward resilient problem solving.

Here's the drill. Take a moment and reflect on a current challenge in your leadership by reflecting on five questions.

1. What do I/we want more of? Appreciative inquiry
This question is a showstopper and starter with your moments of discontent, or staff and council members who are recovering from charisma bypass surgery.

Consider the difference between these two questions: What is wrong here? And, What do I want more of? Craft questions so you can ask—and encourage others to ask—for a second helping of what you value or envision. The question of what you want touches on the radical center of resilience, because you can transform whining, complaining and discouragement into positive engagement.

2. Do I resemble that remark? Self-appraising inquiry
Groucho Marx famously wiggled his eyebrows after being criticized and admitted, "I resemble that remark." The art of reflection resides in recognizing the impact of our behavior on others.

Even without a 360-degree assessment, you can gauge your effect. Scan the faces of staff, colleagues or officials to judge the impact of your words and actions. The questions might include: Why did this staff member suddenly break eye contact during our conversation? Or, Did what I say improve the silence or create it?

Sometimes, this requires taking a third person—Tom Sawyer in the balcony at his funeral—perspective. For example, if I had been watching myself speak at that homeowner's association meeting from hell, how would I describe my behavior?

3. How does this matter? Mission-driven inquiry
Organizational consultant and poet Robert Whyte used the phrase the "discipline of memory" to refer to the capacity to remember what is most essential in addressing day-to-day operational issues. Leaders who ask questions can maintain a clear line of sight to their organizational objectives and purpose and stay connected to the personal values that drew them into public works leadership.

This means asking questions to envision the bigger picture: How does this phone call, meeting, budget/training contribute to the work of my department and the quality of life in my community? What are the values that attracted me to this work and how does my work today underline that commitment?

4. What will I be doing when this is no longer a problem? Back-to-the-future inquiry
Take the next step beyond the conflict or turbulence and picture a future where the problem is transformed. Your inquiry should delete questions that label upcoming challenges and change as insurmountable. Pose a question that anticipates—and begins to create—a positive future. Assume that you will get from there to here.

Imagine this: It is June 2009. You have met the challenge that is causing graying your hair. You can ask: What steps did I take to make this possible?

5. What have I uncovered that has meaning for me? Reflective inquiry
Pose reflective questions to become a better learner—ones that occasion learning and curiosity. For example: What ideas are packaged in this new situation? What new meaning have I uncovered? How has the loss or change uncovered information about my values and priorities? What have I learned that I wouldn't know otherwise? Can I think of this as research, rather than success or failure?

By using reflection as a habit of mind, your questions can become the measure of your leadership. Instead of investigating what is wrong and how to fix it, you can ask questions that give meaning, value and direction to your challenges and accomplishments as a leader.

Barbara Mackoff, Ed.D., is on the faculty of the Rocky Mountain Leadership program at the University of Colorado's School of Public Affairs. She is the author of five books including Leadership as a Habit of Mind, The Art of Self-Renewal, Leaving the Office Behind and What Mona Lisa Knew, and is a frequent keynote speaker in the public sector. Dr. Mackoff is a Featured Speaker at the APWA International Public Works Congress & Exposition in New Orleans. She can be reached at barbaramackoff@aol.com.