Bookcase: What to ask the person in the mirror

• By Robert Steven Kaplan
• McGraw Hill
• RRP $59.00

A successful life in leadership swings more on knowing the questions to ask, rather than on having the answers to hand.
The premise of Robert S Kaplan’s new book, What to ask the person in the mirror, is that knowing how and when to ask critical questions serves young professionals and senior leaders equally well when it comes to taking greater ownership of their career.
Kaplan, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, bases his conclusions on good many years both in business as leader and more latterly as an academic and advisor.
According to him, all successful leaders go through periods of self doubt, confusion, and uncertainty about the quality of their decisions and reasons for being where they are. So do unsuccessful leaders. The difference lies in how they respond to these pressures. “The trick,” he writes, “lies not in avoiding these difficult periods; it lies in knowing how to step back, diagnose, regroup and move forward”: the looking in the mirror connection.
Having looked, the challenge then is to ask the right questions and make the time to reflect on both the questions and possible answers. Reflection before proceeding is key ingredient. It provides the time to ask the right questions in ways that frame key issues cogently and is “more important than having all the answers”, Kaplan argues.
This 224-page book is simply structured guide to helping managers and leaders learn to ask the right questions. Kaplan offers seven basic types of inquiry or areas of focus. Why, though, do so many management, leadership and business books offer “seven” steps, solutions or essentials as the consistent number required to solve problem or enhance an approach to something?
Sevens aside, Kaplan’s approach to inquiry ties key leadership functions together and in that respect, each element should be regularly looked at. There is nothing new about each component, it is more case of regularly focusing on them and contemplating their current state.
According to Kaplan, when leaders ask the right questions and open themselves up to “true” inquiry path, compelling insights tend to fall out as matter of course. “How many times has someone asked you well-framed question that causes light bulb to go off in your head?” he asks. “Sometimes just hearing and then thinking about the right question opens your mind, and steers you in new and constructive direction.”
The book is short, interesting to reflect on, but overpriced.

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