Curiosity: A Vital Leadership Superpower

Curiosity killed the cat
Photo: Unsplash/Bing-Han

I know that they say “curiosity killed the cat” but I’m not convinced. I reckon there’s more to the story.  Because I suspect, even if ultimately curiosity did kill the cat, that cat accomplished a lot more in its life than it otherwise would have, because of curiosity!

The practice of being a leader can be overwhelming – particularly in a formal leadership role with positional authority.  There’s always more to know than you can possibly learn, and more to do than you can possibly accomplish.  And not enough people to share that with.

Curiosity provides the ability to focus more intently on bite-size chunks – thereby making the daunting more manageable.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” ~ Albert Einstein

Let me share with you four reasons why I think curiosity is a vital leadership superpower, and how you can refine and strengthen your own ability to be curious.

Curiosity about your own capability

Great leaders (by which I mean leaders who have an impact and are effective – not just those who are compelling and charismatic) are often described by those around them as ‘humble’.  Jim Collins talks about “windows and mirrors”: that great leaders look out the window for someone to give credit to when something has been successful, and in the mirror, at themselves, when something goes wrong.

In order to be humble, you need to be open to the idea that you cannot, and do not, know everything.  And that you cannot be, and are not, skilled at everything.  But I have seen this done in a hollow way – a superficial way.  A kind of [shrug] “I know I’m not great at everything, but…”

So to be authentically humble, you need to know that there are things you aren’t great at, and know what they actually are!  This means seeking and being open to feedback.  Respecting that other people can have views about your performance that are different than yours – but no less valid.  It also means being open and honest outwardly about what you’re working on, and how.

Curiosity about your own impact

I have written before about Tasha Eurich’s book Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World, which is a brilliant read on this topic.  (In fact there’s an entire chapter dedicated to “Internal self-awareness tools that really work”, which is well worth a read.)  For me, the answer to getting curious about my impact on others has been mindfulness.

Because we live in our own heads – and not anyone else’s – we tend to assume that everyone else sees the world and makes sense of the world in the same way we do.  This is entirely human, but blatantly wrong.

Curiosity Impact
Photo: Unsplash/breather

Just because you like feedback to be blunt and direct, doesn’t mean your co-workers do.  Just because you like meetings to be sufficiently long to enable everyone to have their say, doesn’t mean that your boss does.  Just because you like to send emails at 11.30 at night, doesn’t mean that your staff appreciate them.

Curiosity about your own impact enables you to examine your assumptions and somewhat objectively consider whether your actions and communication are being received in the way that you intend it.  Or not.

Curiosity about others’ motivations and passions

You cannot easily lead others if you do not care about their motivations and passions.  Interpersonal intelligence and emotional intelligence (Howard Gardner and Daniel Goleman’s seminal contributions to this field) are vital for being an effective leader, and your ability in these is intrinsically linked to your ability to be curious about what makes other people tick.

Curiosity about what is possible and how to improve

Someone who is curious about what is possible, doesn’t accept that something should be done that way “just because we have always done it that way”.  And consequently, they can see that there might be better ways.  More efficient ways.  More customer-friendly ways.  More thoughtful ways.

Deep curiosity about how to improve, can lead to step-changes in performance over time, because it asks questions about what could be possible.  It asks questions about what your customers are struggling with.  It asks questions about desirable futures that might be achieved if people can be a little brave and ambitious.

So how can I become more curious?

Well let’s face it, asking that question is a great first step!

Here are three specific things that help you become more curious.

Mindfulness

The fastest way that I have found to build mindfulness is meditation.  I use an app called Headspace every day.  This works for me, but you can ‘get curious’ about what will work for you.  You will know that you’re on the right track when you start having moments during your daily routine where you realise you’re ‘observing’ your own thinking.  This means that you have the mindfulness to be able to intervene – to change your emotion, your behaviour, your communication style or even your energy levels.  This is pretty powerful stuff!

Reading widely

Curiosity Reading
Photo: Unsplash/freddie-marriage

The say leaders are readers, and that’s because leaders want to learn more.  Carve out 15 minutes to read something new everyday.  Something challenging.  Something from outside your usual menu of reading.  If you normally read fiction, try some non-fiction.  If you normally read non-fiction, try fiction.  If you normally read work briefings, try poetry…  With an open mind.

Practice asking great questions

The very act of asking a question prepares your brain to receive new information, because it creates a gap.  A pause.

If you’re new to the practice of asking questions, prepare a few useful ones in advance, like:

  • What do you think we should do?
  • What do you think the options are?
  • What might go wrong if we did that?
  • What is the cost of not making this decision now?

Also, refrain from immediately answering questions, especially from your direct reports.  Being a leader doesn’t mean having the best answers.  It means having the best questions.

 


Related Reading on Curiosity (Amazon Associate links)

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins

A classic in the organisational performance literature, and a precursor to Built to Last, (although written afterwards!).

Collins has excellent examples from a range of real corporations, and the book is structured in a way that is actionable, practical and digestible.

I particularly like the “Hedgehog Concept”.


Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World by Tasha Eurich

My favourite bit is right on the front cover, courtesy of a review from Chip Heath:

“Fascinating… buy a copy for yourself and another to leave, anonymously, on your boss’s desk”

We’ve all had that boss – absolutely convinced he or she is the greatest leader to walk upon this earth…  And yet they so obviously aren’t.

 


Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons by Howard Gardner

Gardner was groundbreaking for establishing the idea that intelligence is not only one thing (as measure by general intelligence tests) but in fact, multiple things: musical intelligence, bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence.  In subsequent revisions he also added naturalist intelligence and existential intelligence.

A serious and insightful book that creates opportunities for us to appreciate and value skill in domains other than those traditionally recognised as ‘IQ’.


 

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3 comments

  1. There are (at least) two wonderful quotes on curiosity that I know of.
    One by Arnold Edinborough (Canadian author): “Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.” – and one by François de la Rochefoucauld (French author): “There are different kinds of curiosity: one springs from interest, which makes us desire to know everything that may be profitable to us; another from pride, which springs from a desire of knowing what others are ignorant of.”
    To me, the two kinds of curiosity can be described as constructive and destructive curiosity – or perhaps rather as craving for knowledge and prying, respectively. The constructive curiosity; the craving for knowledge, which makes us all smarter, and which does not hurt anyone, we cannot get too much of.

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