Not long ago, several colleagues and I were discussing our views on leadership. Soon the conversation turned to leadership attributes. After several rounds of the usual attributes — integrity, transparency, humility, vision, etc. — curiosity emerged as perhaps the most important attribute of a great leader. Subsequent to that conversation, I came across this quote from Ozan Varol:
“The most dangerous proverb in the English language is, ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ As a child, I also heard, ‘But satisfaction brought it back.’ To me, curiosity is a requisite for
being fully human. What is a leader’s responsibility when it comes to fostering, guiding and supporting curiosity?”
Our collective experience seemed to be that the leaders we most admired had many more questions than answers. And they were more than willing to admit they didn’t know about one topic or another. They expected that their people would know more about the details of their work than the leader did. They had pet phrases that they used frequently: “I am just wondering . . .” or “I’m curious . . .” or “Tell me more about what you’re thinking.”
A key aspect of this questioning seemed to be that the recipients of the questions did not feel they were being micromanaged. Nor did they feel the questions were manipulative. They took the questions at face value and knew that they would either learn that they were missing information or that they were on the right track. They believed that their leader had their best interest at heart — in other words, they trusted their leader.
The above average leaders we know take a genuine interest in their people. They know what motivates each individual. They invest time and resources in helping their employees develop as people not just in technical competency. And all of this usually started with real curiosity about why their people responded the way they did in any given situation.
Our observation was that the great leaders extended their curiosity to the lives of their colleagues. They tended to know the names of their colleagues’ significant others and their children. They were familiar with significant events in their colleagues’ lives.
That same curiosity extends to all stakeholders. It’s true that employees came first for these leaders, but they had the same propensity for curiosity when it came to the marketplace in general, and in particular customers, vendors and shareholders. Their intention was to authentically do their best to find a win–win solution to any challenge. In order to do that, they had to find out what really motivated the various parties.
In the end, the consensus of our group of business coaches was that a lack of curiosity causes mediocrity. A great leader is curious about her people, their development and their engagement in the business. She wonders about the customer and the product or service the customer actually wants. She inquires about the data she receives, how it is applicable and how accurate it might be. Our conclusion is that asking relevant questions rather than having all the answers makes a great leader.