leadership curiosity

Curiosity just sounds like a great quality, doesn’t it? If no one were ever curious, this might be written in symbols on the wall of a cave rather than on a global network of electrons accessible by just about anyone on the planet. But while talking about curiosity is easy, it often requires some fundamental changes in leadership style.


Many business leaders rose to the top by identifying and fixing problems rather than contemplating tangential questions. And once someone reaches the top of the organizational chart, they may be wary of projecting anything other than 24/7 confidence and expertise. Curiosity, by contrast, asks questions and risks unanticipated answers.

Studies and observations show, however, that the leaders who aren’t afraid to ask questions, who possess the right mixture of confidence and humility, are the ones with the greatest impact. Admitting you don’t have all the answers can be remarkably empowering, both to a leader and their followers.

Questions Are the New Answers

People are warier these days of the leader who delivers the impression (or worse, seems to genuinely believe) he or she has all the answers. We live in an era of rapid change and instant communication, and an emperor without clothes is far more likely to be called out. Confidence that you’re asking the right questions is as important as knowing you have the right answers. The right answer to an irrelevant question is still irrelevant.

Leadership in the contemporary world is about discovering and shaping the future, and this approach is proving practical as well. Think of the brands that shape how people do things – like Apple, GE, Nike, and Google. They definitely don’t have problems making money as well. People are open to having their views challenged and their lives changed in positive ways. And it’s the curious leaders at the curious organizations that embrace that rather than sticking with “what we’ve always done.”

Stepping Outside Your Frame of Reference

Developing your curiosity demands that you step outside your normal frame of reference. If you ever spend time with a young child, say pre-school age to age 10, you have a perfect opportunity to step outside your normal frame of reference, because your little buddy is working from a place of far fewer preconceived ideas. It’s important to realize that curiosity isn’t something you either have or you don’t. It is a state of being, and you can cultivate it with the right habits and in the right conditions.

Leadership and Risk

This is true even doing the things you always do, whether that’s running computational fluid dynamics software, baking cakes, or teaching college students. Making the deliberate attempt to see what you always see, only from a shifted perspective, can make all the difference. How might you explain your challenge to a child, or an alien, or someone who time traveled from 100 years ago? Trying to regard things through the eyes of a beginner can be liberating, unleashing curiosity and making you (and your colleagues) think differently.

Don’t Know Where to Start? Try These Launch Points for Your Curiosity

leadership curiosityIf you’re not sure how to take that step toward more curiosity, here are some ideas.

  • Learn about your team members. Too many organizations seek teams made of diverse members, and then squash that diversity in day-to-day operations. What are your team members passionate about?
  • Learn about your clients’ businesses. What do they do and how do they do it? Whom do they serve? What are their goals?
  • Keep up with the world. And remember that “in the world” includes in your neighborhood, your region, your country, and everywhere else on this interconnected planet.
  • Don’t be afraid of the question, “What if?” Unfortunately, leadership and adversity to risk go together in many organizations, even in creative industries! Chances are if you’re asking, “What if?” your competitors are too. How will you feel if they actually find out, and do something amazing with that knowledge?

Encourage Curiosity in Your Team

Free yourself to be creative, but give your team that freedom as well. Research shows that people who are more curious tend to outperform peers when it comes to creative problem-solving.

The great news is that your team members’ curiosity doesn’t necessarily have to be about the specific challenge at hand. General curiosity, when people are interested in learning new things from many sources, is a terrific trait for the person gathering information early in the problem-solving process. Specific, focused curiosity, can later pick up the metaphorical baton and run with it toward solutions for the problem at hand.

The Productivity-Creativity Conundrum

There’s no shortage of business leaders who say they value curiosity and creativity in their teams, but often when you ask their team members they tell a different story. An overwhelming majority of workers in the United States believe there is far more pressure to be productive than to be creative at work. Consequently, they don’t spend much time putting curiosity and creativity to work in the office.

Simply saying that you want a workforce driven by curiosity is one thing, but to make it happen, there are times when old processes and practices need to be dismantled. And it’s not easy to challenge the status quo, no matter where you are on the corporate ladder. Telling new hires that you value curiosity and creativity, and then constraining them into rigid command-control structures sends a powerful, but harmful message: it’s great to talk about curiosity and creativity, but actually demonstrating any will cause you to run afoul of entrenched power structures. As a result, the status quo remains strong as ever, and curiosity is snuffed out.

Great leaders are dedicated to intellectual curiosity. The goal of continuing to learn, continuing to improve, and never deciding you have “arrived” and can coast are characteristics of leaders who accomplish amazing things. Top CEOs continue to keep up with industry news, even (or especially) as a new generation of leaders emerges. When someone thinks they know everything, arrogance will take over like invasive duckweed choking out a waterway. Stay curious and help your team stay curious. I can help. Why not contact me to talk about booking a speaking engagement to kick off your drive for creativity and curiosity in the workplace? I’d love to hear from you.