Leadership and Curiosity

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.

I happen to think that fairy godmothers everywhere are quite liberal with the gift of curiosity when we are born. Somehow though, along the way, so many of us wrap the gift up again and put it away in our inner attics, unwrapping it only on occasion.

I think we do that because, as we grow, we are taught that curiosity can be intrusive, impolite and get us into trouble. But, I’m coming around to think that it is one of the foundations of good leadership.

As a fundamental tool for exploration, curiosity is the springboard to developing our ability to ask good questions.  And, the skill of asking questions is one that all good leaders must have in their tool kit. To me, a good question is one that evokes deep thought, instigates change, inspires creativity, and/or clears the debris of confusion to make room for clarity.  It can come from no other place than our very human tendency to want to know. And, for many of us, it requires blowing off the cobwebs of our childhood “gift” and putting it to use.

So, if we haven’t invited our curiosity out to play lately, what might be getting in the way? How might we look at it differently? Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.  Feel free to participate won’t you?

We confuse curiosity with being “Nosy”

Many of us, as we grow, are schooled to mind our own business.  It is offensive to pry.  It is annoying when we ask too many questions.  And later, as adults, it is easy to see why we hesitate to ask when we want to know something.

To me, there is a great difference between being curious and being nosy.  It centers on our intent. Those who seek information with the intent is to use what they come to know for the purpose of passing judgment and gaining leverage over others are more likely to be considered nosy, or worse.

Alternately, those who seek information out of genuine interest do so with the intent to explore, discover and expand their knowledge. These people have a way of engaging others in the exploration too and making them feel valued rather than scrutinized. In other words, curiosity comes from a place of innocence and fascination where nosiness has a more unpleasant origin.

We come to believe that we need to have all the answers before we ask the questions

Some of us will choose not to act out of curiosity because we believe that, as leaders, we should always have the answers.  From this perspective we run risk of restricting the amount of useful information and ideas available to us. And, we rarely learn how to ask those really good questions.

Some time ago, Art Petty wrote a post called; Let Your Questions be their Guide. It is an excellent post that includes some questions that will encourage curiosity in others. If you are curious, I encourage you to check it out.

We are self conscious about how we might look if we ask a “dumb” question

Okay, so no one really likes it when we ask a question that makes us appear to others as being naïve or ignorant.  To some leaders, doing so means tarnishing their image or putting their capability as a leader into question.  And so, they simply stop asking and instead live in hope that someone else will ask the “dumb” question instead.  The trouble with that is that focusing on our own image does not get the job done.  And, it does not allow for the kind of exploration required to build and grow the organization to its full potential.

We have not made curiosity part of our culture

Simply put, if we do not make inquiry, exploration and discovery part of the fabric of the organization, we will resist flexing our curiosity muscles.  Leaders who want to create and encourage this kind of environment must do so by going first, showing others how it’s done and acknowledging those who follow their example.

So…what about you? What gets in the way of your curiosity? How do you, or would you, encourage others to flex their curiosity muscles? What good questions do you like to ask? What benefits have you experienced from inviting curiosity into your workplace? What do you think?



Filed under building awareness, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values

14 responses to “Leadership and Curiosity

  1. adam blackie

    I like the idea of using questions too. The words that we use are crucial. Most effective seem to be:
    – What (does this do etc) – these can sound like an interrogation or appear that don’t know what is happening.
    – How (does this work etc) – is more of a curious inquiry likely to result in a response that will lead to a conversation.
    The language that we use can convert an inquiry into an interrogation. Both are useful, depending on the circumstances in which managers find themselves.
    Adam Blackie

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Adam, You make an excellent point. How we use language to satisfy curiosity is critical to how our inquiries will be received. And, how easy it can be to turn an inquiry into an interrogation without really realizing it. So, in flexing our curiosity muscle how we approach it and how we frame our questions is key.
      Thank you for that, and for coming by!

  2. Gwyn,
    What motivated you to write a post about curiosity as a lead in to asking terrific questions? When is curiosity bad. Don’t forget curiosity killed the cat.

    I think the best way to promote curiosity is by asking great questions, and listening with empathy to the responses.

    Great post, as usual Gwyn.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Larry, I love that you begin your comment with a question :-).
      I chose to write about curiosity as a lead in to asking good questions because I believe curiosity is a fundamental human attribute that lends integrity to any question. We can all learn to ask questions. In truth, we’re not always interested in the answer, only in the brilliance of the question. Being really curious about the answer, to me, honours the question and the person of whom we ask it. And, that, I think, speaks directly to your point about empathy. Thanks for that and for coming by. It’s always nice to see you here.

  3. Excellent post. I enjoyed the topic and your points. I especially liked:
    “Simply put, if we do not make inquiry, exploration and discovery part of the fabric of the organization, we will resist flexing our curiosity muscles.”

    I’m a question asker and , at times have been faulted for it. I always thought it meant I was showing interest or trying to learn but it’s not always received that way. I’ll check out the other post. Cherry

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Cherry, A truly curious person is a rare delight. I suspect you are one of those. Adam (comment above) has pointed out that inquiry can sometimes be interpreted as interrogation and the key to a welcome reception lies in the language we choose. Another possibility is that those of whom we ask questions may not feel disposed to search for the answers or need time to think before answering. For me, answers to others’ questions are not often at the ready. I have to chew on the question for a while before my answer deigns to surface.
      Thank you for coming by! I always like it when you do 🙂

  4. Dear Gwyn – Like you, I savor children’s curiosity, and see curiosity in children and adults is a form of play.

    Your post is also very timely. Clients, and leaders in general, are inquiring about, or being curious about curiosity lately. One CEO asked how she can get her employees to be more curious about a wide variety of topics. Her motivation interested me as much as her question. She sees curiosity and the knowledge it begets as vital to creativity; and she sees creativity as vital to imagining customer needs and the service/product her people will design to meet these needs.

    In a recent post, I shared ideas in answer to the CEO’s question and other folks contributed more thoughts in their comments. You can read them at http://germaneconsulting.com/curiou-business-cat/

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Dear Anne – Your post is a perfect place to learn more about the value of curiosity and to read about a “real world” application.
      Thank you for that and for enriching this post along the way.

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  6. This is a wonderful post, and I also appreciate the comments! I agree that how we ask questions is important, as is how we listen to the answers. I am of the belief that curiosity can save the world, and I thank you for this conversation!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Susan ~ Thank you for emphasizing the importance of listening, a crucial aspect of the curiosity “package”. In reality, we can craft any number of very clever questions but to make them count we have to be interested in the answer!
      Thanks for coming by! 🙂

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