Few would dispute that the world is changing rapidly and in often unpredictable ways. Life becomes increasingly complex, with disruption and transformation no longer being surprising developments. In fact, making assumptions about people, the workplace, or the world, can be an enormous mistake. Now more than ever, it’s critical that we learn what else is going on out there that might be significant someday. Curiosity, in other words, is a righteous pursuit.
Ask a group of executives to list essential leadership qualities, and you’ll undoubtedly hear words like “honesty,” “decisiveness,” “integrity,” and “trustworthiness.” As important as these qualities are in leadership, curiosity is equally important. For one thing, it’s hard to make progress without curiosity. Moving ahead requires that you acknowledge that there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be, and curiosity is the first step to bridging that gap.
Curiosity goes along with another necessary leadership quality: humility. After all, when you ask questions and seek to learn more, you subjugate yourself to others’ influence and input, opening yourself up to a potentially different reality. Here are some thoughts on curiosity and leadership excellence.
Curiosity Fuels Leadership
Just as the right combination of carbohydrates and lean protein fuels the athlete, curiosity fuels leadership. For one thing, curiosity helps ensure the competence you develop is relevant, applicable, and effective. Curiosity – enlisting in the sharing of information – helps us begin to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be, and it tends to beget even more curiosity in the process.
Curiosity also stimulates leadership excellence, because it demands a certain level of confidence. You have to believe in yourself enough to know that although you have some answers, you don’t have them all. Paradoxically, confidence takes a level of humility in order to be genuine. You have to acknowledge that the status quo doesn’t isn’t getting the results you want.
Finally, curiosity is often the critical difference between ordinary and high achievers. Innate ability plays a role and lays a foundation, but curiosity is what builds the structure, ensures there is adequate cross-ventilation, knows where the windows go and where the doors should lead to.
How to Develop Curiosity
Some people appear to have more innate curiosity than others, but be assured that you can develop your curiosity to a great extent. Technology and business leader Simon Walker offers several suggestions for ways to boost your curiosity on an ongoing basis:
- Vary your information sources. The websites you visit, the television programs you watch, and the books you read should represent a variety of insights, from people who are like you and people who are clearly unlike you. This can be more challenging than you think, since it’s so easy to make the internet into our own echo chamber. But the effort is well worthwhile.
- Learn to listen without judging and without starting to formulate what you’re going to say next.
- Specifically seek out perspectives from at least one person of an older generation than you, and at least one from a younger generation.
- Always be aware of your own conditioning and biases.
- Seek out the so-called “naïve expert,” which is someone with great expertise in their own field, who knows little about what you do. You can often gain profound insights from simple conversational give-and-take in this context.
- Be curious about what is considered “normal” and why that is. For example, the late-summer-though-late-spring school year seems “normal,” yet it was based on the needs of an agricultural society that most of us no longer directly participate in.
Helping Others Develop Curiosity
It’s just as important to encourage curiosity in others as it is to develop it in ourselves. One way we can do this is by modeling curiosity. If you’re old enough to remember the Challenger disaster of 1986, you probably remember one of the all-time greatest physicists, Richard Feynman, demonstrating his curiosity about the resilience of the O-rings on the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters by dropping one into ice water and observing how it stiffened.
It’s important that we not only demonstrate curiosity, but reward it in others. Exposing people to different perspectives is also a great way to encourage curiosity. In fact, many CEOs engage in something similar to the “foreign exchange student” programs by occasionally swapping jobs with other CEOs for a day or a week. Gaining such a “day in the life” perspective can be profoundly informative for both parties.
Why Curiosity Is Especially Critical with Current Demographic Changes
We’re currently undergoing a major demographic shift in the workforce, with Baby Boomers retiring every day and Millennials entering the workforce. Generational misunderstanding can quash curiosity, and that’s a shame. It’s only by conversing from one generation to another that we learn to appreciate what each has to offer. The young college grads taking entry-level jobs in your company are digital natives, meaning they don’t really remember a time before the internet. Naturally, this gives them a strikingly different perspective on problem-solving that’s worth listening to.
Which is not to discount the wisdom and perspective that can only be amassed over time and through experience. Unencumbered, honest dialog between generations has the potential to unlock amazing potential in everyone.
Why the Non-Curious Leaders Often Appear to Succeed
Unfortunately, it is often the decidedly non-curious manager or leader who quietly moves up the ranks, never causing trouble, but also never bringing about significant positive change. Perhaps they focus their energy on details of day-to-day activities, and have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. While they may be promoted on a predictable schedule, they can kill curiosity in both themselves and others.
Indifferent leaders are all about not rocking the boat. They tend to operate systematically, and are often well-liked because of their general laissez-faire attitude and reputation for not being demanding. Their organizations may perform “well enough,” but stagnation is a real risk due to the allowance of only limited perspectives. The curious leader, by contrast, may make waves and may be somewhat of a lightning rod figure. But he or she is the one who will ultimately take the organization to a higher level of functioning.
Curiosity drives innovation, helps people learn adaptation skills, and helps create purpose every single day. It should be seen as just as indispensable a leadership quality as honesty, experience, and a strong work ethic. I encourage you to engage your own curiosity and I invite you to check out my books, which cover corporate cultural transformation, performance management, and unlocking the full potential of your leadership.