Make Inquiry Your Leadership Default Position


It’s now common to hear organisations – particularly schools – talk about how they are nurturing lifelong learning. How might leaders benefit from seeing themselves as lifelong learners?


When we talk about the kinds of skills and attitudes required to thrive in a world where the pace of change continues to accelerate, the notion of lifelong learning is often front and centre. In an information-saturated world, it’s no longer sufficient to simply focus on the transfer of a set of knowledge and skills; rather, organisations have begun to invest in the development of individuals who are oriented towards always asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘what if’.


So how do leaders make inquiry a part of their everyday practice?


Leadership as inquiry


In education, as in other sectors, there is growing evidence that inquiry, as an effective mode of deep learning, should be at the heart of how leaders learn and grow. Leaders need to develop and apply the inquiry processes to their day-to-day practice: asking questions, collecting and analysing evidence, taking action, and reflecting on their progress. Through this learning process, leaders not only build a deep understanding of their context, but also build their professional knowledge of the practices that promote organisational learning.


A cycle of action and reflection


In his paper Leading inquiry at a teacher level: It’s all about mentorship (2012), Mike Fowler draws on his own experiences as a Deputy Principal to lay out the principles and practices that are essential in fostering a culture of lifelong learning within an organisation.


Fowler identifies a cyclical, reflective process that incorporates collecting feedback, identifying an area for improvement, and taking action. In this process, multiple sources of feedback are essential, as a means of providing insight for the leader as to where they are in their practice, and what they can do to enhance their effectiveness.


Of course, as Fowler emphasises, the key to making inquiry a source of real growth for leaders is to make space for structured reflection. Professional conversations that are grounded in strengths-based feedback allow an individual to reflect on their skills, identify areas for development, set goals for growth, and plan actions to take. A culture of reflective practice is one that makes time for these kinds of conversations, and makes them central to the organisation’s improvement agenda.


A community of learners


It’s clear, then, that middle and senior leaders play a critical role in creating a culture of learning through inquiry. They can model the practice of inquiry as a way of driving positive change. When leaders engage in the cycle of asking questions, seeking feedback, reflecting, and taking action for improvement, they make learning central to their work, and reshape organisations as a professional learning communities.


Harnessing the inquiry cycle everyday


Cycling through the inquiry process can be integrated into your daily leadership practices, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:


  • Make the process visible:
    • Create a visual of the inquiry cycle, and make it part of your performance development and professional learning frameworks.
    • Share the process with staff, and discuss how it might be used in their day-to-day work.
  • Apply the process:
    • Structure meetings according to the phases of the inquiry cycle
    • Use it to design extended professional learning and development projects
  • Reflect on the process:
    • Identify opportunities and problems that could benefit from the application of an inquiry process.
    • Share examples of how the inquiry process was used to create positive change.


Gradually, through deliberate action and reflection, organisations can make the shift to a culture of learning, where an inquiring mindset is the ‘default’ position.