Curious Leaders are the Best Leaders

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

If you’re like me, when growing up, you were rewarded for having the right answer in school. And there was typically only one correct answer (usually determined by the teacher, regardless of whether there were other possible answers). It was a system that rewarded memorization and regurgitation of names, dates, and boring facts.

When I started working in the corporate HR world, I was again rewarded for having narrowly defined ‘right’ answers. When managers came to me with employee issues or policy questions, they appreciated being told what to do, when to do it, and the next steps (without needing to do any thinking themselves). I felt good providing support, and the manager felt relieved for not having to figure it out himself.

But I wasn’t doing these managers any favors. I wasn’t helping them learn how to be good managers or develop soft skills and emotional intelligence to navigate these challenges on their own.

To “know” things and dispense knowledge as-needed was and continues to be rewarded.

The problem with this way of “knowing” and being “right” is that future problems will not be resolved, and you will not be a successful leader in the long run. 

Jim Dethmer shares that current research on leadership shows four competencies that predict sustained success as a leader: self-awareness, learning agility, communication, and influence. I’ll focus on the first two, which deal with a leaders’ internal relationship to “reality.” In other words, what the leader believes to be the reality.

In our world of knowledge at our fingertips, having the answer or memorizing facts is not meaningful (unless maybe you compete regularly in trivia at your local bar). There is also no ONE right answer, as it all depends on perspective. So, if you are someone that believes you have the answer and you think yourself to be correct – a new way of thinking is necessary for sustained success.

According to Dethmer, “Our brains are hardwired for self-preservation – we are constantly seeking to protect not only our physical well-being but our ego, as well.” Our default is to believe we are right — or, at a minimum, to believe there is ONE right answer — so we approach a problem by “figuring it out.”

Unfortunately, our problems in this world are getting ever more complex. As Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” There is more volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) than ever before in this world – so we need a new approach.

As leaders (and we are all leaders in some capacity of our lives), we need to let go of the idea that we must give the right answer (or that there is even ONE correct answer). Instead, to compete in this VUCA world, we need to shift our way of thinking and how to approach problems.

We accomplish this through curiosity.

If you start with the mindset of trying to solve the problem and figuring it out, you presuppose that there is ONE answer and the goal is to find it. This is our old way of thinking.

However, by becoming curious, we transform the process into a different experience. This method starts with an openness to explore and to step into the unknown, which means risk and letting go of control. This is the new approach.

This new way includes asking open-ended questions that lead to new areas to explore — areas where you’re not an expert and don’t ‘know’ the answer. Curiosity has the trigger effect of allowing the brain to relax as it reduces its fear of failure. When the brain doesn’t have the pressure of needing to be “right,” it allows space to play. In this play mindset, your mind is free to try things out because there isn’t much attachment to the outcome – it’s about the process (play). The results: more creative ideas and possible solutions to try.   

Curiosity is key to finding new approaches to working with complex problems in this VUCA world.

Curiosity in a leader is also critical in developing leaders for the future. If you get curious and ask open-ended questions of your team, you are training them to think instead of relying on your answer or believing there is only one right answer (there is never just one). By doing this, you expand your team’s ability to think creatively. 

When a team member comes to you with a problem, what is your approach? Do you start problem-solving with them? Do you make suggestions and throw out ideas? Or do you just give them the answer? Most team leads do one of the above, usually because they want to be seen as helpful and supportive.

By doing this, however, you’re training your team to rely on your brainpower instead of stretching their own. You also aren’t teaching them how to approach a problem with creativity. The Coaching Habit suggests asking a powerful question to promote curiosity instead. Train your team members to be creative thinkers by bringing in curiosity instead of advice.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to train the leaders of tomorrow. The world is only getting more complex by the day, so it’s your job to get out of the way and help them think beyond your capacity. Our minds of today will not be able to solve the problems of tomorrow. Are you curious enough to be a great leader?

If you want to expand your curiosity, do something different and expand your interests. That could be reading an article about a topic you know nothing about, doing a new activity or going to an art museum. And, if you do go, don’t forget to bring a friend from a different industry.

Do you need to develop your curiosity muscle and don’t know where to start? Do you want help showing up as the leader you want to be? If so, I’m here.