Best leaders ask, "What's the worst that can happen?"

Many leaders fail and whine. The best recognize that they can learn a lot from others. Talking to employees, competitors, customers, or anyone else who may have an opinion; they never shy away from asking a lot of questions.
 "How could we have known that would happen?"

Noticed recently how you're hearing this question a lot more frequently?

More leaders, across a wide swath of industries and sectors, are pointing at recent news items to justify their inability to hit forecasts (which they seemed so confident about just 90 days earlier) when discussing their organization's performance.

They note:

- Fuel costs are skyrocketing and killing the airlines.

- People want cars that get more miles per gallon - so the auto industry is suffering.

- Food costs surprise everyone as corn is used less to eat and more to run cars.

- Spending on infrastructure within most organizations is being cut back.

- Downsizing is occurring everywhere.

"How could we have known that would happen?"

Well, to start, they could have asked.

The best leaders ask a lot of questions. They are constantly trying to learn how to do things better. And they know that other people have information and insight that they don't. So they ask all sorts of people questions to gain perspective and real-world feedback. And with that newfound information, they ask others what their thoughts are.

Consequently, the best leaders aren't the ones you see at a press conference justifying their recent crappy performance as being "beyond their control," or making statements like, "nobody anticipated that the price of fuel would go up as much as it has.

What bull! A couple of years ago, the leaders at Southwest Airlines saw that one coming. So they started investing in hedging funds for their price of fuel. Now, they pay about $55 for fuel while the big airlines are paying $135 and scrambling to survive.

If you've ever had anything to do with Southwest - as a customer, a business partner, or provider - you know that they have a pretty good grasp of what their customers think. They have managers who work "with the troops." And those managers - all the way up the chain of command - ask a lot of questions to everyone they meet. And as a result, they don't get "surprised." They make plans according to what they hear from those most in-touch. They succeed when others fail.

And, by the way, couldn't you or your spouse have told the guys making trucks like the Titan, Expedition, Suburban, Tundra, Hummer, etc., was not a sound long range idea because probably the price of gas would soon rise? Really, who didn't know that? Only, it seems, those auto executives who couldn't resist the idea that a truck provided about $5,000 more profit per unit than a small car.

So they practiced that time-honored approach which I call "management by crossed fingers," aka: "Let's hope that nothing happens.

In addition to corporate types, I also coach business owners or managers. When looking at their strategy and forecasts, I always ask, "Now, what's the worst thing that can happen? If something occurs that will blow these planning premises?" Usually, this question causes a good dialog about what could happen. That then takes us further to discuss what contingency plans are needed to ensure they would survive and recover. Did anyone ask that question at CountryWide Mortgage, or Citibank before they made all those loans for homes that seemed to only go up in price?

Do you ask lots of questions? I mean at least five per day?

If not, ask yourself why. It may be because you don't want to look stupid. That's your ego preventing you from doing what's right. And, as you know already, egos cause a lot of problems in our personal life and in our career success. Don't let your ego inadvertently cause you to become even stupider.

The best leaders, if you watch them closely, seem to be "ego-less"." The best leaders have no fear of looking stupid, just a genuine concern about failing. They know they will improve their odds of success by asking questions.

Questions 101: Some leaders tell me that they don't know what questions to ask in many situations because they aren't close enough to the work done by that person or her team. So here are a few easy ones to toss out when you find yourself in those situations. Guaranteed to get some feedback:

* What are you thinking about when you wake up at 3AM?

* What's the biggest problem here you see right now?

* What can I do to make it easier for you (or your team) to get the job done?

* If you had one wish to make it better around here, what would it be?

* Do you have everything you need to succeed?

* What do you see on the horizon that could be bad for us?

* What's the most important thing you (or your team) have got going on right now?

* What roadblocks are holding you (or your team) from rocketing ahead?

Be prepared to hear things that may make you uncomfortable. Don't make any promises you can't deliver. But let people see that you're open to any ideas. This approach will make you and your organization better. And, as a side benefit, it will save you from becoming one of those whiners pleading, "How could we have known that would happen?"


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...


Good article! Good tips, especially "Questions 101". I should think you could add "Risk Management" to the categories and/or tags. Thank-you!


Because when a project is proposed, the FIRST thing I do is go down the list of negatives before going down the list of positives. I explain to my boss that it is NOT that I don't want to do the work or are complaining, but we should think of the BAD things and decide if the good things are worth the risk, and take measures to avoid the bad things. My new boss is more a "I don't want the details, I want yes or no" kind of guy, so I drive him nuts. B-) Everything is "It depends......" ;\


When I worked for GM's NAMA (North American Market Analysis) group at the beginning of each year everyone would throw $5 into a pot and predict how many vehicles GM would sell in the US market for the following year. After winning the contest (I wasn't a forecaster, just IT support) four years out of five, the head of NAMA wanted to know what my secret was. I told him, "I don't have to worry about corporate politics, I can forecast the truth." They didn't let me enter the contest after that. :( GM's management style has always been "Management by Crisis". If it isn't a crisis it doesn't get GM's attention.


We had a few managers like that. Let everything get to be all FUBAR, and you get a few benefits. One, policy goes out the window because it is an "emergency". Two, you are seen as the hero because you solved the emergency (that you allowed to be created).


Most managers tell me that their managers probably don't want to know what's really going on. Or else they'd ask. Do you agree?


In general, I agree. Depending upon the size of the organization, and it's strength; most people are usually nose-to-the-ground chaps; rarely looking to realize they're actually sniffing a trail along the rail-track. There are places where questions are appreciated, and places where the question/er is snubbed. Guess which organization is more likely to survive.. ?

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