The new normal is here, and we have entered into an uncertain world. Whatever rules or norms that were governing the businesses of the past have been by and large upended.
For some, this is a time of great stress. However, in some ways, a world of uncertainty isn’t necessarily new. In fact, great leaders are ones that have always been able to make the most of uncertainty.
Much is already written about leadership qualities, from resilience to empathy to courage to innovation. But if you look under the surface of all of these, there is one quality above all else that connects every other trait: Curiosity.
Why Curiosity is the ultimate trait to cultivate as a leader
There are many things that leaders are responsible for. Operationally, they have to provide guidance (especially in a time of uncertainty), direct and troubleshoot projects, and manage teams. Emotionally, leaders need to possess the people skills required to engender empathy, mitigate conflicts, and motivate staff. Everywhere you go, people look to leaders for answers.
When we rise up to a balcony view, the astute will recognise what the Leader is primarily responsible for is not actually about providing solutions, but identifying the right problems to solve.
While that may sound straightforward, the even more astute will recognise that the bigger challenge is being able to identify and clarify the true nature of the problem.
This is why curiosity is the ultimate trait to cultivate. Great leaders ask great questions. If you observe great leaders closely, they never start with a solution. They’re not afraid of asking tonnes of questions, from dumb questions that avoid misunderstandings, to challenging questions that test assumptions and push boundaries.
The better the understanding of the problem, the more effective the solution is.
But don’t just take it from us. Have a look at what these well-known and well-regarded leaders all have to say.
Using Curiosity to gather information
“Questions are critically important because first and foremost 'thinking' is largely asking yourself questions and answering them. Secondly, if you want to get anything in life chances are it's inside someone else's head; the knowledge, the skills, the blueprints. And the pickaxe for getting that gold is in the form of questions.” -Tim Ferriss
What we love about this insight is that Tim even breaks down the act of thinking as a Q&A process, which makes sense at a metapsychological level. For instance, if you read that quote and thought: “That does / does not resonate with me,” what you’ve done is answered a subtle precursor question: “Does that resonate with me?”
Using Curiosity to foster creativity and innovation
“Creativity comes from curiosity. The more curious you are about the world, the more you experience and learn. The more you experience and learn, the more connections your brain is able to make. And with more connections, you can find new solutions to problems or see things no one else can see.” -Simon Sinek
Simon demonstrates fundamentally the actual root of creativity and innovation, and it’s not simply ‘be creative’. From the lens of leadership, great leaders are ones who are curious about how things work. The more they understand how their team or their operations work, the more they understand what needs to be put in place to support creativity and foster innovation.
Using Curiosity to enable vulnerability and empathy
Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead: Brave Work and champion of the need for leaders to embrace vulnerability, shared this hack on an interview with Marie Forleo about her book:
"The biggest hack in the book is, when you have to lean into vulnerability and embrace the 'suck' during a hard conversation, we have to take off the armour. And that's scary because then we're just left standing there. What do we use if we don't have the armour? Curiosity is the leader's tool. Be open. Stay curious.”
The particular segment from the interview was a role play in which Brené played an aggressive manager attacking another manager (played by Marie). Instead of being defensive, Marie acknowledged Brené’s frustration, and then immediately started asking questions to understand and clarify the source of the frustration.
Using Curiosity to grow as a leader
"Curiosity is one of the main traits that drive people who seem to cut through the clutter and wind up with more opportunities and more trajectory." - Kat Cole, CEO of Cinnabon.
And finally, curiosity is the root of learning. The reason why curiosity helps leaders cut through clutter and wind up with more opportunities is simply because each question they ask represents a greater understanding of the true problems they face. This helps avoid distraction and provide clarity on what is valuable to them.
How to adopt a Curiosity Mindset
“Passion is rare; curiosity is everyday. Curiosity is therefore a lot easier to reach at at times than full-on passion — and the stakes are lower, easier to manage.” - Elizabeth Gilbert
Curiosity truly is a skill that we all possess and can employ every day. But this is where it’s important to understand that curiosity isn’t just about asking open-ended questions.
There is a structure to it that separates those who are simply curious from great leaders.
- It’s not just one question, nor is it about asking a mass of unrelated questions. It’s about going deep. Start with one question (the primary question), and then make sure that every question you ask thereafter builds on whatever answer you receive.
- It’s ok not to know the answer to a question; in fact great leaders are brave about saying: “I don’t know the answer.” But it’s the next set of questions that separate good from great: How can I find the answer? Where can I go? Who can I speak to? What can I research? What can I listen, read, or watch?
- And finally, once you have an answer, what are you going to do next? Are there new questions to ask? What have you learned? What’s the decisive action to take?
This is the secret superpower of great leaders, and it’s hiding in plain sight!
But it does take some practice to maintain a Curiosity Mindset. If you’d like to dip your toes into it, you can try out our Leadership Curiosity Map Pack, which guides you through the common questions great leaders ask themselves.
Or if you’d like to jump straight in and start adopting your Curiosity Mindset, you can pre-order our Curiosity Journal today. Order before X date and receive a Limited Edition Ian Mason Curiosity Map Pack.