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Mike Figliuolo


One Question That Keeps You Out of Trouble

Not jumping to conclusions can prevent you from being thought a tyrant or fool

Published: Wednesday, July 19, 2023 - 11:03

You folks know I love asking questions. From this post about forgoing answers in favor of asking questions, to my quote, “Asking the right question about the future is more powerful than having the right answer about the past,” I’ve found questions to be a more powerful leadership tool than many others that are out there. Heck, if you read my book One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2021), you’ll find it’s full of questions designed to help you become a better leader.

Out of all the questions I know of, the shortest one of all is a great way to stay out of trouble as a leader. I’m talking about the kind of trouble that earns you a reputation as a jackass, an insensitive lout, or someone too obtuse to care about people: “Why?”

We’re generally smart people—that’s why they put us in leadership roles. Smartitude can get problematic, though, when you assess situations too quickly, draw conclusions, then act without taking a moment to stop. Think. Get grounded.

Allow me to demonstrate how I could have avoided looking like a complete idiot if only I’d asked, “Why?” instead to being a “decisive leader.”

When I was a sophomore at West Point, I had a bit of a reputation of being a haze. I used to pounce upon hapless plebes (freshmen) whenever they made the slightest mistake. Some of it was simply good, clean fun and sport. There isn’t a lot to do for entertainment at West Point in the dead of winter.

Anyway, one day a plebe walked by me at a pretty slow pace. This was a problem because plebes were supposed to “move with a purpose” which meant at least 120 steps per minute. In the real world, this meant any plebe doing less than 180 steps per minute was slacking and was in need of hazing.

As Cadet McSlowwalker sauntered by, I jacked him up. “Hey mister! Don’t you know you’re supposed to be moving out a lot faster than that? You completely lack military bearing and are a disgrace to your squad leader!” I ranted for a couple of minutes about how much of a lowlife McSlowwalker was because of his lack of urgency.

I prepared to launch into Part 2 of my tirade when a junior walked by and heard me hazing the plebe. He stopped me and asked, “Hey, can I ask this guy something?” I gleefully nodded in assent, thinking this junior was about to turn on the high flames and utterly destroy McSlowwalker.

He asked, “Hey, McSlowwalker, why are you moving so slow?”

“I just had knee surgery on Monday, sir, and I’m not allowed to walk fast or I’ll tear my stitches.” The junior told McSlowwalker to get out of there and go take a nap to rest his knee. He then turned his attention to me.

“Dude, you just made an ass of yourself. Before you jump to a conclusion, understand the situation. Asking ‘why?’ takes about five seconds. Don’t screw it up again.” Having imparted his leadership wisdom, he went on his way.

How often do you jump to conclusions about what’s going on? How often do you take action based on those conclusions? How often do you think perhaps, maybe, possibly, you’re wrong and you’re taking action based on incorrect assumptions? How much better of a leader could you be if you simply asked, “Why?” before making your decision?

I’m not saying you won’t make hard decisions or mete out justice occasionally. Had McSlowwalker replied, “I’m walking slow because it’s stupid to walk fast,” he would have been a smoldering charcoal briquette on the ground when both the junior and I got done hazing him. That said, it would have been a “just” reaction because we actually had correct facts.

Try it. The next time you’re about to make a decision based on assumptions and conclusions, ask the other person in the conversation “Why?” before you act. You might be surprised to find out you’re wrong. And it’s better to find out you’re wrong than to act on wrong information and be hated for it.

First published June 21, 2023, on the thoughtLEADERS LLC LinkedIn page.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch (Weiser, 2016) and One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and co-author of Lead Inside the Box (Weiser, 2015). He’s also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS LLC, a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.