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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

4 Questions Successful Leaders Aren't Afraid to Ask Themselves

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To bring out the best in others, you can’t just say, “Do it!” and expect to step back and watch your team work. Delegation may be a critical leadership tool, but the most inspiring leaders do more than just make pronouncements and give direction. These are the questions managers ask—they’re thought-provoking and inspire others to think creatively, get engaged, be accountable, and take action.

But how do leaders keep themselves motivated and engaged? Turns out, they ask themselves a few key questions, too.

I asked four high-energy, engaging leaders to share the challenging questions they frequently ask themselves—ones that help them be better leaders. Here’s what they said.

1. “Am I Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason?”

“At times, it’s easy to let office politics or a strong personality sway decisions,” says Angie Gels, Vice President, Human Resources at The Nielsen Company, “so I have to ask myself, ‘Am I doing the right thing for the right reason?’”

For example, when making a decision about the structure of an organization, it might be easy to build a team around one particular individual, rather than step back, think critically, and make a tougher but more sound decision that’s best for the company’s work flow and results.

By answering her question, Gels says she can make sure that the decision she makes is in the best interests of everyone in the company. “This helps me focus on the big picture, rather than a smaller piece of the pie. It enables longer term thinking versus just a short-term fix.”

And, it has helped Gels establish a strong professional reputation. “I’ve been able to gain credibility by operating this way and have become known as someone who will provide an honest opinion even if it differs from the rest of the group.”

2. “Do I Spend Enough Time With My Team?”

“Field presence was built into how I lead from early on in my sales career,” says Kevin Arceneaux, Region Vice President for the Pacific Coast Region for Nabisco Brand of Mondelēz, International. “I have always felt a leader should be present with his team—not only in meetings, but on their turf, watching them do what they do, observing and asking questions.”

This face-to-face time with team members allows Arceneaux to see first-hand what his people are working on, what’s important to them, what motivates them, and the challenges they’re facing—rather than leading from afar. There’s a feedback loop at play here.

“There is no substitute for spending time with people if you are interested in developing them,” Arceneaux says. “You can never spend too much time with your team.”

3. “When People Walk Away From Me, Is Potential Activated?”

Craig Ross, CEO and President of Verus Global, says, “A question we should all ask ourselves is ‘When people walk away from me, is potential activated?’”

Ross, who has trained and coached top leaders at firms including P&G, Aetna, Nestlé, and Ford, believes that as leaders, “Our challenge must be to activate others, not constrain or limit them.”

You’ve probably had the misfortune of working for a boss who managed by limiting his or her team. There’s a name for this type of boss: a micromanager. His or her vocabulary is full of phrases starting with “You can’t,” “I don’t think you should,” or “Don’t do it that way.” Employees walk away from these conversations feeling undervalued and unproductive.

Here’s a way to make sure that you’re not one of those managers: Approach every conversation as an opportunity to unlock that person’s creativity, confidence, and momentum by asking her what’s working well, what she’s learned, and how she’d like to excel.

Every interaction—whether it’s with peers, superiors, or subordinates—can be an opportunity to challenge others to be more and, ultimately, achieve more.

4. “Who Will Replace Me, and Is He or She Ready?”

“A good boss told me the best way to succeed in my career was to pick and groom my own replacement,” says Stephanie Matthews, Executive Director of Real-Time Strategy with Golin. “That means challenging my team members to stretch beyond their job description.”

When Matthews sees a task that she could easily do herself, she asks herself, “Who will replace me, and is he or she ready?” That gives her the chance to pause, reflect, and consider if someone on her team should take on the task, rather than doing it herself.

“I could likely do it faster with fewer changes, but by doing that, my team isn’t gaining anything,” she says. “I’ve also been happily surprised when their interpretation of a project is something different—and better—than what I would have done.”

But beware: Grooming successors is a long-term commitment—not a question to ask if you’re looking for instant gratification! “In the short-term,” she says, “asking this question can slow things down, but the long-term results are powerful.” In fact, empowering and mentoring others has allowed Matthews to grow in her own career and free her up to take on new and exciting projects.

By asking yourself these four questions, you can make informed decisions, understand what makes your team tick, cultivate employees’ potential, and develop other leaders to succeed you.