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.