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Monday, August 9, 2010

Do you ask or tell?

We know that leaders can inspire or undermine employees in their everyday activities. So it was refreshing to read Dan Rosenweig’s comments (CEO of Chegg) in the New York Times recently, commenting on his own leadership style: “I try very hard to be descriptive about how we want to define success and not necessarily prescriptive on telling them exactly how we want to do it — because, frankly, many of them are a lot smarter than me at what they do.”

Many of us struggle to build high-performing organizational cultures as we battle the challenges associated with allowing employees to take risks and potentially fail, or giving employees too little latitude to find their own way to the solution, leaving them ill prepared to be effective decision makers or make significant contributions to the success of the organization. Competitive pressures and cost containment leave us with little room for mistakes. What’s the best approach?

If you’re being prescriptive, then you may as well be doing the job. As a leader, I subscribe to the Just Ask leadership approach of asking before telling. Great leaders know just the right questions that direct employees in a way that helps them to find their own way to the solution. Descriptive leaders provide overarching direction and guidance, yet empower people to achieve the vision laid out for them with their own skills and ideas.

Both leadership approaches have some merit depending on what is warranted for the specific situation. But descriptive leadership styles are likely to produce a talent base that is resourceful, can solve problems, is results-focused, empowered and independent.

Have you considered how often you prescribe rather than describe a project brief or desired solution?


  1. In todays complex world it is difficult to give too much weight to the prescriptive. And yet when you know what it is that you want your employee to do, it is a lot better to be prescriptive than pretending that you are asking questions with great authenticity. Great leaders ask questions and suspend their knowing or let go of it all together and trust their teams to accomplish the vision, mission, and objectives. Thank you for sharing this post.

  2. Robert Matura, CIGNA HealthCareAugust 9, 2010 at 9:29 PM

    I have found it is most important to know when to use either leadership style. For example, when leading a team of seasoned employees descriptive will pay many more dividends. But, when leading employees in new roles or changing the way you do business it is best to add a measure of prescriptive leadership in order to provide direction and focus when something is new.

    I strongly feel great leaders knows when to employ several leadership tactics depending on the situation to best help the employee succeed. When done correctly I've found teams respond very well and appreciate the balance provided.

  3. As leaders we often think we have to come up with all the right answers. But the new leadership approach for the wise leader is not so much about telling - it's more about asking questions, listening, involving in a dialog for the answer or solution to our important challenges and issues. Peter Drucker once said: "The leader of the past was a person who know how to tell. The leader of the future will be the person who knows how to ask."