“Curiosity killed the cat.” This friendly little ditty told to children across the country is intended to squelch the wandering mind of young kids so as not to annoy their parents. Oh, what a disservice we are doing to our future!
As Liz Wizeman argues in her book Multipliers, today’s most effective leaders amplify the capability and intelligence of their teams by accessing the collective wisdom of the group. She argues that the fundamental role of leaders today is no longer knowing and directing, but rather asking and listening. Curiosity is the critical ingredient!
But we don’t always see curiosity in leaders. Why not? One reason is that true curiosity requires a number of attributes that are more difficult to come by in today’s imposter-syndrome workplace:
Requirements for true curiosity
- Humility – To be curious is to accept that you don’t necessarily know everything. Otherwise, why ask other people for input? You have to believe that it’s at least possible that someone else may have a better answer than you.
- Confidence – To be curious also requires publicly acknowledging that you don’t know everything. So even if we are humble enough to believe we don’t know, we must have the confidence to admit that to others. Without confidence, the humility is a waste. I was recently listening to an M&A guy tell me about why more deals aren’t closing right now. I didn’t really understand his detailed explanation. I knew I didn’t – I had the humility to admit to myself that I wasn’t following. But because I used to be a finance guy, I felt like I was supposed to. I didn’t have the confidence to admit to this guy that I wasn’t following (I was worried about looking dumb). So I didn’t ask. As a result, I’ve had a conversation with an expert but still don’t know why more deals aren’t closing right now.
- Belief in the rationality of others – I once heard one of my heroes (Doug Stone) say that everyone is typically acting in rational ways that makes sense in their minds. If you don’t understand their behavior, ask questions to better understand them instead of writing them off as irrational. A slightly more famous leader (Abraham Lincoln) was also quoted as saying “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” If you chalk up the behavior of others being “mad or bad,” then you miss out on an opportunity to learn from them. If instead you get curious, you just might change your mind, or at least understand better how to relate to them.
- Self-control – Curiosity also requires you to hold back from your advocacy, in order to tease out what others are saying. Have you ever been giving someone feedback when they jumped right into an explanation as to why your feedback isn’t relevant? How did that impact your willingness to give them more feedback? My guess is it shut you down a bit. Same philosophy here – if you ask me for my input, and then immediately jump in with your input, I’m back on the sidelines. But if you stay curious, you’re likely to draw me into revealing more and more of my thoughts on the topic. You can then decide later which of those you want to keep.
These are the characteristics of a truly curious leader. But why should we be that person?
A genuinely curious leader enables:
- Learning – In today’s idea-economy, learning is necessary for growth. Teams learn more under leaders who are curious enough to ask questions and draw out the full thinking of their team members.
- Teaching – By being consistently curious, you start to create the expectation among your team members that you are going to ask a bunch of questions. Therefore, they need to think independently, critically, and defend their ideas.
- Calming – Curiosity can be really disarming in a high-stakes moment. Ever respond to someone yelling at you with “What’s going on for you right now? Can you help me understand your point of view better?” Such questions get people out of their triggered rat-brains and into their rational minds, and help them feel heard so they can move on to problem-solving.
- Creativity – When you ask questions, you validate people. When you validate people, they become more confident offering new ideas. And when you encourage more new ideas, you’re likely to expand your options.
Curiosity is not the only requirement for effective leadership, but it is a crucial ingredient. It requires confidence, humility, belief in the rationality of others, and self-control. If you can manage it, you’re likely to get more learning, teaching, calming, and creativity out of your teams. Best part is – it’s free! Why not get curious and see what you learn!
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!