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The question every great leader asks

5 min read


Sara leaned back, crossed her arms, and sighed.

“It’s not right! My VP expects me to hit these numbers, but customers want updates, and research is focused on new products and won’t give me the time of day.”

She shook her head. “I guess I’ll go down to R&D and tell them they’ve got to change their attitude or the company’s going to end up in the toilet. This just sucks!”

I asked, “How do you think that will work?”

“It won’t! But what else can I do? I didn’t ask for any of this!”

When life isn’t fair

Can you identify with Sara?

You’re working hard, you take your work seriously, and then you’re confronted with obstacles. They’re not your fault. You didn’t ask for them, but there they are, staring you in the face, keeping you from moving forward.

Every leader I’ve ever met (heck, every person) is faced with unfair, difficult circumstances at some point. That’s just life.

Many people will spend years or even their entire life stuck in the quicksand of “not-fair-despair.” But it’s also the moment where leaders are born.


Sara was stuck because she hadn’t asked herself the most important question that every great leader asks of both themself and their team. She was stuck because her focus was on the problems: other people’s expectations and attitudes.

She was stuck because she chose to see herself as a victim.

Sara’s not alone — life and literature are full of people shouting, “Why me?” If you’re there now, it’s OK. It means your human. Just don’t stay there.

“Why me?” and its cousin “What’s wrong with those people?” are horrible leadership questions. They suck the energy out of you because they give away your power.

The good news is that you can transform your energy, instantly reclaim your power, and get unstuck in just a few seconds.

3 words that will transform your life and leadership

It only takes one question. It’s a question every great leader asks and its only three words long: “How Can I…”

Those seven letters may not look like much, but they are the foundation of leadership.

With those three words you:

  • Return focus to your own power and ability to act.
  • Taps into the energy of your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that problem-solves and plans).
  • Vastly increase the odds of finding a solution (because you’re looking for them!).
  • Take responsibility and ownership for the one thing you can control — yourself.

How it works

When Sara asked, “How can I…” she finished the question with her goals. For example: “How can I work with R&D to find a solution to the customer updates and meet my numbers?” Or, “how can I work with my VP to meet or modify my sales goals?”

With that one “how can I” in mind, Sara generated a list of potential solutions that didn’t involve forcing someone else to do something.

This question works for teams, too. When I served as an elected councilman I watched our mayor at the time, Joe Rice, transform a room full of stymied constituents, staff, and representatives with one question: “We can find 1,000 reasons why this won’t work. Let’s try a different question, ‘How can we do it?’”

In a matter of seconds, everyone’s thinking changed.

This powerful question is at the heart of leadership. Leaders take ownership for themselves, others, and the world around them. You simply cannot lead without first taking responsibility.

A couple of notes:

1. When you ask “How can I…” you might honestly respond with “I don’t know.” That’s OK. Use this follow up question: “What might I do if I did know?” Now watch what happens. It’s amazing how you can generate ideas when you give yourself permission.

Sometimes you’ll realize that you don’t have the information you need in order to craft solutions. Then the question becomes, “How can I get the information?” As with shampoo: rinse and repeat!

2. Responsibility doesn’t mean co-dependency. You are responsible to your team, not for your team. To your organization, not for your organization. To your spouse, not for your spouse.

Your turn

What problem are you and your team facing that you’re not sure how to solve? How can you pull together and figure it out?

Leave us a comment and let us know how you move past “Why me” and victim thinking to empower yourself and your team. Be the leader you want your boss to be!

David M. Dye works with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done. He is the author of “The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say,” is president of Trailblaze, Inc, tweets from @davidmdye, and welcomes your LinkedIn invitation.