“Be curious, not judgmental” – Walt Whitman

Like some of you reading this post, I used to watch a lot of television, but I have cut most of it out over the last few years. The main exceptions are if my wife and I get into a show together and watch one episode per night or watching live sports. During the pandemic, this pattern really has not changed, as I have enjoyed spending time reading and playing with my son.

Not only can watching television be a big time waster, it can also be a source of stress, especially 24 hour news channels, which I actively avoid. Furthermore, I have often worried about Hollywood’s glorification of rude jerk personalities, like Dr. House and Ari Gold from Entourage. One of the final straws which led me to limit my TV-watching was the juxtaposition of the optimistic portrayal of public service through shows like The West Wing in the early 2000s, to the ultimate in cynicism shown through political dramas like House of Cards, which premiered around 10 years later. Every time I would turn on the television, I would see more glorification of the “love-able jerk” characters, which just does not align with my values.

But then much to my surprise, in walks Ted Lasso. If you have not seen the show, Ted Lasso is on Apple+ and I highly recommend it.* In short, it’s the story of an American college football coach who is hired to coach a premier league soccer team in England. Without giving too much away, the Ted Lasso character, played by Jason Sudeikis, is optimistic and resilient, the ultimate “good sport.” Every Friday, I excitedly wait for the next episode, sometimes using the excuse of my son rising early to get my early morning fix before starting the rest of my day.

A recent episode had a moment in it that taught a very important lesson and made me reflect and go deeper.

Take a look:

Instantly, the story and the Walt Whitman quote, “Be curious, not judgmental,” struck me both intellectually and emotionally. I started to consider how often I rush to judgment, and whether doing so was actually serving me well, or limiting me when trying to reach my goals.

Our minds are meaning-making machines, constantly making assumptions, judgements, and looking for patterns. This is not an inherently bad trait – it kept humans safe as we evolved for a very long time. However, interpersonally these same tendencies may not serve us as well. Our internal narratives can be filled with bias, can be self-destructive, or can result in hurting someone else. At the end of the day, our judgments can be the lens through which we understand the world and that lens is foggy at best, opaque at worst.

So what would happen if we replaced our judgments with curiosity? What would that world look like? And what would a workplace like that feel like?

These are all questions that have been on my mind since reflecting on this powerful quote from Walt Whitman by way of Ted Lasso. I have found that I need to check myself all the time to try be more curious rather than judgmental. In doing so, I have found that it is amazing how many of my assumptions are actually wrong. I’ve also learned that being curious is much more enjoyable, light, and energy-saving than being judgmental.

The more we learn about something, the more we open ourselves up to different points of view, and the more we question, the more truths and wisdoms we will learn. Leaders must continue to pursue truth and wisdom as the world continues its fast pace of change. It serves leaders to be curious, to not judge, and to not rely on what has worked in the past.

How will you be curious, not judgmental?

KEY TAKEAWAY: We all have so much to learn and being judgmental can shut us off from truth and wisdom. “Be curious, not judgmental” – Walt Whitman.

*Note: Ted Lasso is rated TV-MA for those who may want to screen before watching with families and young children.

Tell Me More

Much of the literature on leadership emphasizes the importance of having core values. During difficult times when the future may appear gloomy, core values remind us to resist impulsive, “in the moment” decisions that may compromise us in the future. As I have begun to discover and define my own core values, one is apparent – Curiosity.

Curiosity is important to me for many different reasons. Curiosity allows leaders to accurately diagnose problems, searching for the root cause and asking important questions. It also forces leaders to challenge assumptions, often disrupting the status quo to explore new opportunities and be a force-multiplier for the organization. Finally, curiosity teaches leaders humility.

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In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, habit 5 is, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. In seeking first to understand, leaders have an opportunity to accurately diagnose situations. For example, if a department appears to be achieving good results, a leader could ask questions to understand how the group completed the work and whether their methods could be a best-practice, applicable to the rest of the organization. A leader could also ask questions to assess whether the department was lucky, good, or both to achieve their results. If a department is producing consistently bad results, the leader can also define whether the issue is personnel, lack of cooperation, silos, operations, finance, marketing, etc and recommend changes to help that department to improve its results.

Curiosity also encourages leaders to challenge the organizational status quo and change how people think about a recurring process or challenge. Some long-tenured employees at an organization may defend processes as, “but we’ve always done it this way” or “it’s best practice” or, my personal favorite, “but everyone else is doing it this way”. Leaders who I admire will not take this at face value and instead will explore the process curiously. A strong leader may go and see how the “everyone else is doing it” is impacting the customer and whether the process actually works to deliver them the quality product or service they expect.

Organizations, especially large ones, can often get stuck in a rut with how they typically do business. The examples of businesses that have been overtaken by disruptors and innovators includes Kodak and Blockbuster. Leaders should get ahead of the tendency of people to prefer prevailing practices in order to maximize their potential for success. This gets increasingly difficult as the leader stays in their job longer. Leaders can use curiosity as a systematic way of making sure the status quo doesn’t continue due to inertia.

To do the work of diagnosing and challenging the status quo first requires curiosity followed by other qualities like listening and good judgment. In this way, curiosity functions as a foundation of a building, which is why I keep it as a core value.

The first part of Covey’s 5th habit, “seek first to understand” requires not only curiosity, but humility. Sometimes leaders are encouraged to appear as if they, “know everything”. That pressure, combined with people treating you differently as a leader, can encourage people in leadership positions to actually believe that they, “know everything”.

Curiosity encourages leaders to stay humble. It encourages leaders to go out and learn things will remind them that there is a lot that they don’t know, even about their own organization. Challenging our own assumptions can be hard to do, but is necessary to be impactful in an organization.

Curiosity is a core value of mine and it is an essential part of continuous improvement. It is not a be-all, end all. Just as there is a time and a place for everything, sometimes it is time to stop asking questions, stop diagnosing problems, and act. Curiosity is not an invitation for paralysis by analysis. Instead, it’s a way to challenge other’s thinking and keep things fresh in an organization.

My professor and coach, Dr. Gerald Suarez teaches three powerful words, “tell me more”. These three words can express curiosity around a topic area.

I am working to develop systems in my life as a leader that encourage curiosity, so “tell me more”. What would you suggest that look like? Do you know of any good activities that promote going deeper? I’m curious!

KEY TAKEAWAY: Curiosity is a foundational core value of mine. Curiosity stretches us and our organization, in a healthy way. Coupled with active listening abilities, good judgment, and humility, curiosity can help organizational leaders stay fresh in their thinking and solve complex problems.