The advantage of asking questions
Ciaran McMahon suggests that leaders who ask good questions rather than provide all the answers, will strengthen their school’s response to a crisis.
The power to get things done
The pandemic has changed our work environment, the way we do things and what we were attached to. However, it has not changed our ability to adapt, or discover new pathways to new, solution-filled destinations. Simply put, it has changed how we do things, but has not prevented us getting things done. It is in this context that school leaders continue to lead their school communities.
Major change brought on by an external force impacts everyone, and our response can limit or empower us. These challenges can frustrate our efforts to set or achieve new organisational goals, or alternatively can offer up opportunities that will improve our practice. When considering styles of school leadership, I have advocated following an “unheroic model”, whereby leaders sometimes act as followers. In these challenging times, I am convinced that this style remains relevant, and ask those involved in school leadership to consider the possibilities of an approach that emphasises leading by questioning and coaching.
A coaching approach
As school leaders, our natural inclination is to “fix problems “and lead from the front when challenges present (“heroic style”). This approach however will only serve to constrain us in a future reality, where dependence on us as leaders by others, becomes the currency of our daily interactions, and will ultimately overwhelm us. Leading through questioning and coaching mitigates this. A coaching approach to leadership poses empowering questions in a non-judgemental manner, and opens the space for building rapport and trust with our teacher colleagues and allows them to say what’s on their mind.
Creating the space to solve problems
In work situations, people will respond best when they feel free of judgemental opinions, and, when speaking about the challenges they face is acknowledged, valued. Consequently, when we as leaders ask questions of others in professional conversations, instead of telling them how we think things should be done, they can surface and explore their own thoughts in regard to doing things independently, deal with possible limiting fears and develop new perspectives. Ownership of problems and challenges is created in this space. This is where colleagues can speak without interference, about what is real for them, and where we can harvest the organisational knowledge and expertise that supports and informs our response to crisis.
Questions are the keys that unlock creativity independence, support networks and expertise. A questioning approach as a leading strategy or style, acknowledges the presence of everyone needed to respond to the challenges that any school faces, especially now. Empathetic work practices are the embroidery that will embellish the school tapestry. Our schools, like cloth, can always be improved and regenerated, with a leadership embroidery that emphasises “questioning” rather than “telling”.
Powerful simple questions can lift the lid on options and alternatives, so that we can respond to and co-create new realities. Collaborative responses to threats from external change forces, fortify and bolster the quality of the ”new teaching and learning” we can deliver. In today’s climate this approach adds substance to “we’re all in this together “. However, our reliance on questions as a leading strategy to achieve outcomes, only works if we can do a number of other things.
- Remain silent and listen to the answers that others offer up. Follow their answer with another question if you like, but not with your opinion.
- Recognise this process will take time. It is not “quick fix”, but the time invested will fix a lot. Make time!
- Stay out of the way! Do not impose your presence in conversations with others. Your goal is to co- create and build leadership capacity. Encourage independence not dependence.
- Remember you may not like the answer to your question. Show no judgement. Be prepared to put aside your attachments, and change course.
This is how school leaders can harness and strengthen their joint response with colleagues to any crisis. You as leader will not be alone in achieving this, but will be supported by those who want to see you succeed in leading such a response, because it is now their response too.
How will you know this?
You will have asked.
Ciaran McMahon is the former Principal of Scoil Bhride, Tullamore, Co. Offaly, Ireland, and is now a Centre for School Leadership (CSL) mentor to newly appointed Primary School Heads in Ireland.
As well as being a qualified mentor, Ciaran is also an independent qualified coach for established school leaders.
Ciaran can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org