What’s the Mark of a Great Leader? It’s the Question Mark

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, one of attorney Atticus Finch’s bedrock principles is to never, never, never on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to. Otherwise, you might get an answer you don’t want, which could wreck your case.

That may be a good principle for trial lawyers, but it’s actually a really bad idea for businesspeople. In fact, the mark of a great leader is really the question mark.

This idea of asking questions kept popping up when my good friend Billy Samoa Saleebey appeared on this episode of The Combustion Chronicles. And that’s not just because Billy hosts two top podcasts”For the Love of Podcast and Insight Out ”where he asks a lot of questions he may not know the answers to. In fact, he said asking questions is a superpower of visionary leaders like Elon Musk.

When Billy was head of global sales and product training at Tesla, he saw firsthand how Musk used that superpower. On conference calls, Billy said, he was brilliant at asking hard questions about why we do this, why do we do it that way. He challenged people to get past what they perceived as obstacles or barriers.

Questions were a big part of what Billy’s team taught Tesla’s salesforce. He wanted to flip the script on old-school car shopping, so salespeople were taught to ask themselves and their customers lots of questions: What type of customer are they? Are they the type of customer that’s going to take it on road trips? Are they the type of customer that likes the performance of the vehicle? Are they the type of customer that wants to have the technology?

Understanding what your customers want lets you not only meet their needs but surprise them (which is one of our experience principles at MOFI). Billy said that became one of his own superpowers in the years he spent waiting tables. He learned that the better you know your customers, the more you’re able to surprise and delight them.

Speaking of delightful surprises, Billy gave one more example of somebody who’s good at asking questions: the singer Taylor Swift. He explained how Swift, before she was a megastar, would host parties to get to know her fans. Some of these parties, he said, were almost like a wedding where there’s all these round tables and all her fans are sitting down and she would go from table to table and meet each fan individually.

Even today, Swift still holds secret listening sessions for new albums. She even bakes cookies for her guests. (I’m still waiting for my invitation, by the way!)

Taylor Swift and Elon Musk are two of the most successful people on the planet, and they both know the power of asking questions. How about you? In your business, when was the last time you asked a question you didn’t know the answer to?

Takeaway: To surprise your customers, you have to know them. And the best way to know them is to ask them lots of questions you don’t know the answers to.

As an experience evangelist, Shawn Nason (founder and CEO of MOFI) partners with human-obsessed and maverick-minded people and organizations to rethink their Experience Ecosystems™. Click here to learn more.

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