In the countless ‘top qualities that make a great leader’ articles that have been written over the last few years, the same list of attributes comes up time and again: confidence, integrity, creativity, influence, commitment, to name a few. But I’ve often wondered on the omission of one particular characteristic: curiosity.
Curiosity is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when we think about leadership. As we grow up our natural curiosity is drummed out of us. We learn with purpose rather than with wonder. We focus on what we know we’re good at rather than exploring what we’re not. We stop asking why. And by the time we’ve spent a few years in the workplace, whether we realise it or not, most of us default to accepting things as they are.
But being a curious leader can be very powerful. At the most basic level curiosity helps you connect with others, whether it be your friends, peers or your team. When you take a mindful and proactive interest in what and how other people think, you work with them more effectively. Curiosity fosters collaboration, sets up the conditions for meaningful discussion, and can help uncover brilliant solutions to tricky problems. In fact, many of the listed qualities expected of and admired in leaders, notably being creative or influential, are a direct fall out of being curious.
The role curiosity plays in making leaders great is starting to get some due recognition. In A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, film & TV producer Brian Grazer charts the series of, what he terms, curiosity conversations he has over his long and successful career.
For the past 35 years, Grazer has sat down and had conversations with people from all walks of life — particle physicists, intelligence agents, world leaders, etiquette experts — for the sake of curiosity. These conversations have had no pre-determined objective. But they have led him to create some of his most memorable and successful shows, films and characters and helped him build a thriving culture in his own production company.
What can we learn from this? And how can you bring more curiosity into your life and leadership?
Lead with curiosity
How can you (re)learn to be curious? It starts by simply listening to what people are already saying. Really listening. Not just paying attention to when other people speak but considering their point of view with an open mind and without judgement.
Then comes asking more questions: to your team, peers and acquaintances. Be mindful to ask open, as opposed to closed, questions. Curious people tend to start their questions with “What…”, “How…” and “Why…”, rather than “Do you think…”. This give the person or people on other end the opportunity to answer without bias and paves the way for open discussion.
Most importantly, make it easy for your people to ask questions of you. This can be the hardest part. It means that you have to be vulnerable enough to admit when you don’t have the answers. (You can read more on the power of humility in leadership here).
Grazer sums up the pragmatic benefits of being a curious leader when he reflects:
“I’ve discovered that even when you’re in charge, you are often much more
effective asking questions than giving orders.”
Make time for curiosity
Part of the reason our curiosity deteriorates over time is because our lives get filled up with responsibilities and expectations. To be more curious you have to be mindful of how you spend your time and your thoughts. And to bring curiosity into the workplace you really need to make time for it. That said, it needn’t be a great amount of time.
For example, a JobVibe customer recently shared with us how they improved retention
of junior members by asking one simple question every three months: how are you
You can bring curiosity into your culture by adding an ask-any-question section to the end of your team meeting, making a habit of running one-on-ones with each of your team. or setting-up regular Q&A sessions with the senior leaders in your business, much like Google’s TGIF or Facebook’s weekly Q&A with Mark.
Start your own curiosity conversations
The secret behind Grazer’s philosophy is that you should collect information wherever and whenever you can, even when you don’t think you need it. You never know when or how it will help you later down the line.
And you don’t necessarily need world-leading experts and superstars to have a brilliant curiosity conversation. There are opportunities all around you: an old friend who works in a faraway industry from your own, acquaintances, experts you hear speak at conferences. It might feel uncomfortable setting up conversations with no clear purpose or motivation at first, but Grazer notes that most people he’s asked are quite willing and very able to sit down and talk about their lives for an hour or two over lunch.
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