It makes some sense that I grew up to become a librarian; I was a curious kid. Any grown up who spent any time with me when I was young would tell you that. I remember taking a plantation home tour in Florida once and asking about all of the furnishings, table settings, and other details. The guide gladly answered every single one, and it wasn’t until near the end of the tour, when I saw over his shoulder how two people on our tour shared a glance and an eye roll, that I realized that others found my curiosity annoying.
I’ve learned over time to temper that curiosity in the short-term (I look stuff up myself or ask about it after a meeting or gathering so as not to waste everyone else’s time). I still catch exasperated sighs and glances when I go overboard, though. I can’t help it! I like digging past the pat answers and, especially at work, really understanding why my coworkers think the way they do, do the things they do, propose the things they propose.
Which is why I am glad to have found A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas by Warren Berger. The book is full of explanations and examples of how masterful questions can lead to innovative ideas and results. With the constant change we see in our libraries, it is impossible for me as a library director to have all the answers, so I rely on my managers and staff to be the experts with whom I can consult (as you know from Stylin‘, I tend to be a consultative leader).
Berger talks a lot about how leaders today need to ask questions to not just understand, but to inspire their employees in ever-changing environments; their key leadership skill is sensemaking, “the ability to make sense of what’s going on in a changing and complex environment.” Great leaders must ask Why, What If, and How, and get past any ego about being an expert–the time it takes to become an expert could be too late. So, hiring the right experts to advise you is important. Also important is asking your employees questions to help drill down their thinking, to get past the trite answer or the pat answer or the answer they think you want to hear and get to their real opinions and recommendations.
I am only partway through this book but I am finding all kinds of validation and inspiration in it. It is helping me understand myself and my evolution as a leader–many of my questions have evolved from my childhood “I want to know!” questions into management “I want to help you figure this out” questions when I am coaching my employees through a problem. Inquiries like “Why do you think that is?” “What would you suggest?” and “How would doing that make the situation different?” help employees grow and learn, rather than me just telling them what to do about an issue.
Many of the example leaders in the book are comfortable with not knowing things, with living in the gray areas, with having most (but not all) of the pieces in place at launch. Part of my leadership journey is getting comfortable with uncertainty, and so this is definitely “right book, right time” for me.