The Most Powerful Question a Leader Can Ask

by Alli Polin on February 1, 2013

How can I help?

I’ve worked for a lot of managers – good, great, average and awful.  In consulting, I would switch projects every few months.  More often than not, I’d have a new manager I was reporting to and just as often I would be assigned a new internal career counselor.

Have you worked with any of these managers?  You may even see yourself in some of the descriptions…

The Hoverer

I’ve worked for managers that were at my desk every hour asking me “How’s it going?”  What they really wanted was a status report.

The I Can’t Be Bothered

I’ve worked for managers that were harder to find than a needle in a haystack.   They told me, “I trust you, I’ll check in with you in a few days.  OK?” What they really wanted was for me to just get the work done so they didn’t need to worry about it.

The Just Like This

I’ve worked for managers that drew out all the details for the deck that they wanted me to develop.  They asked, “Do you get it?  Am I clear with what I’m looking for?”  What they really wanted was an extra pair of hands, not another thinker in the equation. 

The Tell Me I’m Brilliant

I’ve worked for managers that would give me their high level vision and then ask, “What do you think?”  (But then work hard to discredit my ideas and suggestions.)  What they really wanted was for me to nod and clap and say how brilliant they are and how lucky I am to bring their vision to life.

The Smartest One

I’ve worked for managers (even when I was a VP) that told me that they’d do the talking in the meeting.  They asked, “If I missed something, can you shoot me an IM so I’ll be sure to say it?” What they really wanted was to be viewed as the smartest person in the room.  To be the leader. 

While I have worked for a lot of managers, I’ve worked for far less leaders.  The leaders were as invested in my success, the team’s success, and the organization’s success as their own.  They weren’t concerned about credit or looking smart, they wanted to do great work and create a great place to work.

The Leader

The leaders I’ve had the privilege to work for delivered exceptional levels of support and service not only to the customer, but also to employees.  It was a few of these leaders that taught me the power of one very simple question; the most powerful question a leader can ask.

Four Words:

How can I help?

The leaders that asked me this question?  What they really wanted was for me to succeed.  For us to create something exceptional together.  To deliver the unexpected.  To empower the next generation of leaders.

  • How can I help you remove roadblocks?
  • How can I help you to brainstorm?
  • How can I help to connect you with others?
  • How can I help build on your work?
  • How can I help you to achieve your goals?
  • How can I help you realize your career ambitions?
  • How can I help to solve your problem?
  • How can I help shine the light on your effort?
  • How can I help to spread the word?
  • How can I help you be successful?
  • How can I get out of your way so you can do great work?  I’m here if you need me.

Try it for the next few days and see how it changes the conversation at home, in the office, with customers, colleagues, friends and family.  Ask how you can help. 

Drive Accountability

People that waited to be told what to do will discover that they own their work, not you.  They will think about what they need and learn that you genuinely want them to speak up for themselves.  They own the work as much as you do.

Empower Others

Instead of shining a mysterious green light in the sky to let people to let people know that they can run with the work, this is it.  Let them walk, run, skip and jump with their own panache knowing that you fully have their back.

Sincerely Connect

When you ask how you can help and truly mean it, you’re letting someone know that they matter.  You want them to succeed as much as they want to succeed.  That’s a powerful gift to give someone.

“How can I help” is my favorite question for a leader to ask.  What are some other powerful questions that you ask that inspire others to do and be their best?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Moore February 1, 2013 at 7:11 am

Hi Alli

So many recognisable bosses on your list there…I think I have met them all at some time. Sounds to me like you have them worked out.

They can be so demotivating and they have the effect of an energy vampire on sales floors too.

So many memories from your post



alli February 1, 2013 at 7:24 am

Thank you, Dave!

Unfortunately, my guess is that many of these managers will be recognizable to too many people. They are energy vampires! You’re right! The certainly don’t get our blood pumping. Employee engagement can’t soar unless we’re handed the reins to make decisions and own the work.


Blair February 1, 2013 at 7:22 am

Alli, you make such an important distinction between managers and leaders in this post. I laughed in recognition at all the manager types you listed. I always feel encouraged when leaders ask me “What do you want the outcome to be?” It helps me stay laser focused on the task.


alli February 1, 2013 at 7:29 am

Blair – That’s a fantastic question! It puts accountability for the vision in your hands and it’s no longer “owned” by the leader. We’re significantly better able to help when we know what someone wants to accomplish.

What I love about leadership is that the most effective leaders walk by our side, not in front of us and certainly not pushing us from behind. Questions like “How can I help? and “What do you want the outcome to be?” set us on the path to accomplish something together.

Thanks for adding depth to the conversation, Blair!


Bev February 3, 2013 at 10:38 am

Thanks Alli for this great, sharable blog. You are so right,and it applies to client’s as well as employee managers. I’ve had each of the examples you give, including one “how can I help”–a true “servant leader” who led by example. He commanded respect because he earned it. I still regard him as a mentor, role model and friend.


alli February 3, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Bev – What a joy it must have been to work for the individual you describe. When we’re fortunate enough to work for a true “servant leader” it leaves a mark and hopefully inspires us to integrate many of their strengths into our own leadership style. To have that relationship continue into a mentor and friend – priceless. Thanks so much for confirming for us the power of a “we” focused leader.

Best –



John Dickweed February 5, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Nice post and interesting classification of different “boss” types. Also the “How can I help?” question with the mentioned variations is great.

However, a lot of people seem to have misconception about leadership. Leadership is about driving change. It’s about changing the status quo. It’s about communicating a clear compelling vision of the future, aligning people to work towards a common goal and inspiring them to make it happen despite the obstacles. In other words, leadership happens when someone _tells_ (not ask) what the future should look like and then that vision becomes reality at some point.

Now, you cannot really define the future by asking “How can I help?”. It’s a great question and _managers_ should use that question a lot because _managers_ are responsible for ensuring that goals are met and creating an environment where people can reach high performance – thus it’s about removing roadblocks, impediments etc. That question also immediately generates action points and responsibility to the person who asks that question. Thus coaches practically never use that question – they use open ended questions so that the coachee can figure how to help himself to reach the goal.

Also leadership is not about an organizational position you hold. Leadership is an act. Anyone can demonstrate an act of leadership at any time at any level. Really strong leaders have lots of influence and they can make changes happen even without any kind of budget, title, organizational position or such formal “power”.
It’s sad that many people with some sort of “manager” or “director” etc. title fool themselves into thinking that they are leaders. Most of them are not.

Kotter’s 8 step model is a good model for driving change. If you are really leading, you are using that model or close variant of it a lot.


alli February 13, 2013 at 3:46 am

Thanks for your comment! I appreciate your perspective. I don’t think that the only thing leaders do is changing the status quo and driving change….it’s also about inspiration, support, setting a vision and many other things.

Great point that leadership is NOT about your position or title and anyone can be a leader. I’m with you 100% on that!


Duncan Mackinnon February 7, 2013 at 5:57 am

Like the best leaders the best employees are team members who want to promote the organizations cause before their own agenda.The best employees often become the best leaders because they give above and beyond the immediate. All the characteristics of a good leader are equally true of a good employee .


alli February 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

I agree, Duncan. Putting shared success above individual success is the mark of a leader. Leaders are found at every level in the organization and leadership does not only sit with those that have formal titles. Any employee at any level can absolutely step up and be a leader. Thanks so much for adding to the conversation!


Linda S Fitzgerald June 15, 2013 at 11:34 am

Awesome Alli! I think at points in my life, I’ve been all of them. Now I hope I’m wise enough to let others know what is expected; step back and let them tell me when they need help.


Alli Polin June 16, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Thanks, Linda! Yes, truly empowering the people you work with to run with the work and fully own their experience while still fully knowing you’re there when needed is what leadership is all about. Much more of the being of leadership than the doing. Funny how caught up we can get in the doing.

Thanks for your insight and for being you!!


Donn Gilray August 31, 2013 at 3:49 pm

(website is very young – don’t judge me 🙂 )


I enjoyed the descriptions of the various bosses and the insightful taglines you assigned to each of them.

I have always used the phrase “untitled leadership” since my Navy days. My layman definition of a leader: “Anyone who inspires somebody else to do something better than what they would have done otherwise.”

Another adage I use, but do not know the source: “Managers manage resources, leaders lead people”. That being said, people are the number one resource for any company. And this fits in with the phrase, because managing people as a commodity fits into the “Just Like This” model above.

Thank you for your insights!



Alli Polin September 1, 2013 at 6:55 am

Donn –

Your description of leadership is fantastic. Title or not, it is absolutely the essence of what it means to be a leader. I’ve worked with many people that saw me as a robot – crank out the work and somehow do not have the need to go home, kiss my children, spend time with my husband… The way leaders engage with people defines the culture. Want a culture that values people? It’s simple, show people that they’re valued.

A sincere thanks for your comments and for taking the time to stop by the blog!

Many thanks!




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