The Secret Ingredient for Extraordinary Leadership

Do you (or your organization) use the vending machine approach to leadership?

That approach is when someone asks the boss a question (inserting the coins) and out pops (like the candy bar, soda, or bag of chips) the correct answer.

Fitting the mold

This "all-knowing" expectation is common in many organizations:  you, as a leader, are rewarded for looking smart by quickly providing answers. Because what gets rewarded gets done, you adjust your actions to fit the preferred mold. Pause for a moment and reflect:

  • Do I make statements rather than ask questions to save time and keep things on track?
  • Do I reward consistency and conformity because they are the expected norms of behavior?
  • Do I label those who ask too many questions as disruptive and difficult?
  • Do I look for facts that support my position and ignore those that challenge my position?
  • Do I want answers given to me fast, clear, and unequivocal?
  • Do I tell the boss what he wants to hear?
  • Do I feel uncomfortable when there’s ambiguity?

The curiosity and joy of exploration (the insistent inquiry about why this or why that) that filled your childhood gets squeezed out by the expectations and standardized processes of academia and business.

It seems that organizations are claiming to value curiosity, but still discouraging its expression. They promote innovation, yet punish failure. They cling to legacy structures and systems that emphasize authority over inquiry and routine over resourcefulness. ~ Todd B. Kashdan, scientist and profession, George Mason University

Answers are more valued than inquisitive thought, and curiosity is trained out of us. ~ Hal Gregersen, Executive Director, MIT Leadership Center

An absence of curiosity at work

A state of curiosity survey conducted by Harris Poll in 2015 shows how curiosity is absent from most of the leadership landscape:

  • 39% of workers report that their employers are either extremely encouraging or very encouraging of curiosity
  • 22% describe themselves as curious at work
  • 66% report facing barriers to asking more questions
  • 60% say their workplace throws up barriers to integrating curiosity into their work
  • 10% strongly agree that their leader preferred new and unfamiliar ideas

How being curious benefits you

Curiosity—desiring knowledge beyond what you know—is a state of mind that CEOs say is a necessary leadership ability. A deficit of curiosity and a surplus of conformity make it challenging to lead in today’s complicated world.

Curiosity delivers multiple personal and professional benefits including improved performance, mental retention, and happiness. Being curious also improves social interactions and interpersonal relationships by allowing for “comfort with uncertainty, unconventional thinking, and a tendency to avoid judging, criticizing, or blaming other people.”

Curiosity is what separates us from the cabbages. It’s accelerative. The more we know, the more we want to know. ~ David McCullough, author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner

10 ways to be a more curious leader

Provided you have self-awareness, curiosity—filling the gap between what you know and want to learn—is a skill that can be developed. To be a curious leader, you need to:

  1. Stop making statements that shut down creativity; start asking more questions that begin with “why” and “how.”
  2. Probe for hidden or missed insights in the conflict, incongruity, contradictions, and uncertainty the bubble up at work.
  3. Reframe your definition of failure to allow room to experiment, explore, and learn.
  4. Be mindful of being too quick to judge or criticize.
  5. Stop insisting on certainty and accept a measure of uncertainty and ambiguity.
  6. Give yourself permission to play, have fun, and break the rules.
  7. Listen more closely; ask clarifying questions. See what’s churning beneath the surface.
  8. Watch the labels you use to categorize people and situations; they can be barriers to learning.
  9. Probe for unfamiliarity within the familiar.
  10. Don’t get too comfortable with what you know; seek out facts that challenge what you believe to be true.

A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be. ~ Albert Einstein

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