Skip to main content

Curiosity, Not Just for Cats

Leadership is at the center of any successful enterprise. Without a leader, an organization cannot dream of achieving its goals. Similarly, a leader’s ability to connect with her team, inspire a shared vision, and move people toward a common goal requires shared responsibility for the team to follow.

Many of the wartime generals who inspired leadership models, books, and movies are lauded for their courage, decision-making ability, productive paranoia, empathy, and other fantastic qualities. However, many of these traits seem to place the burden—and the praise—on the individual leading the team. The team is only as strong as its leader, and is limited by the leader’s ability to continue to inspire a vision. A trait that seems trivial but produces different results, a trait I have to continually work to cultivate, is curiosity.

In its purest form, curiosity presents itself in the form of the question “… and what else?” when seeking a solution to a complex problem. In fact, curiosity is always questioning, not advice-giving. A person asks himself this question with the goal of creating more options, and more options lead to better decisions. Asking “and what else?” causes the person to think outside of their preexisting framework. When this question is asked multiple times in succession, it can lead to creative solutions without your direct involvement. This empowerment breeds independent thinkers capable of leading others.

The critical failure in appearing to be curious is when you aren’t. Asking questions that lead to you being the hero for providing help is just thinly-veiled arrogance, and it is always seen for what it is. If you are interested in the other person’s perspective, or in seeing them develop a solution on their own, curiosity becomes a powerful tool. On the other hand, asking questions and answering them yourself by giving advice creates dependency and ill will when forced.

Challenging the status quo is inevitable when curiosity comes alive. Asking “Why are we doing it this way?” doesn’t have to be a challenge to authority and the decisions of management. A few years ago, we had a new hire who would question my every move, making me feel insecure and, if we’re being honest, a little disrespected. Eventually, we got on the same level and had a heart-to-heart. He had never worked in pro AV and was not condescendingly challenging why I was doing something; he was curious and genuinely asking why I was doing it. As a leader, you have to trust that your co-workers are genuinely good people and avoid letting your reptilian brain convince you otherwise. This will help you to view people’s motivations as curiosity and and stay curious yourself.

Curious people are always learning. One of my favorite questions to ask leaders is, “What are you reading right now?” because they always have a great answer! Podcasts, books, and stimulating ideas are never far from a curious leader because they thirst for more. Creating a culture of learning within your organization or circle of influence signals to others that you value learning. When people discover they can learn anything that’s in a book, they become limitless in their ability to develop, mature, and advance. Company book clubs are a fun way to stimulate learning, but they can often feel forced. Sharing what you’re learning and asking people for their recent discoveries clues others into your love for knowledge, and the ones who respond in kind are probably young leaders with potential.

How can curiosity impact your business beyond relationships? An immediate benefit is in innovation. Curious people are never satisfied with what’s currently working. Rather than approaching designs from the perspective of what’s been successful in the past, they are interested in what else might work. Nothing drives a curious person like the possibility of a better way to solve a problem. If you took apart the toaster as a kid just to see what was inside, you might be a curious person. 

Related to innovation is a penchant for failure. Using failure to determine what didn’t work and to provide direction for the next idea is key, but it’s much harder to put into practice, no matter how many Thomas Edison posters you hang on the office walls. Having an expectation that more ideas will sink than swim is healthy and realistic. Having a close friend who can help point out flaws in your bad ideas can help bolster the good ideas and reduce the pressure to produce winning ideas on a regular basis. 

One way to help creative juices flow is to schedule “white space” on your calendar—unstructured time to think, dream, and ponder, to question the status quo and wonder about a more efficient solution. I’ve always found that the best way to ensure that the most important things get done is to put them on my calendar. Thinking time for curious people is just that: important!

True to form, I will leave you with some book suggestions to help feed your curiosity monster. The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier outlines the seven questions you should be asking your colleagues to help them develop, and it makes a point to address staying curious and genuine. Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, et al., discusses staying curious when addressing behavior problems with others instead of jumping to conclusions and making judgements about others’ motives.

They say “curiosity killed the cat” like it’s bad thing. My guess is the cat learned what didn’t work and tried again, knowing it had eight more tries to get it right.