The Curious Leader: why curiosity is an increasingly important leadership trait

April 24, 2023

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
curious-child-examining-grass

Why is curiosity important in today’s business world? Can the modern leader learn how to be curious? What are the benefits of becoming a curious leader?

The real world of today is every bit as confounding as the wonderland Lewis Carroll’s Alice once encountered. We certainly seem to have experienced more than our fair share of despotic rulers and Mad Hatters. Her response to those bizarre circumstances, confusions and uncertainties was to wonder what it all meant and to be curious.

I think she was exactly right to approach it in that way – and that leaders everywhere should follow her example.

Curiosity has never been more important than it is right now. Without it, we are faced with doing what we already know how to do – and assuming that we already have the right answers. Any leader who believes that in the current world really is a mad hatter…

So, what does being a ‘curious leader’ actually mean?

The literal definition of the word curious in the Cambridge Dictionary is to be ‘interested in learning about the people or things around you’.

That’s a very sound starting point, showing that this is related to learning and to understanding the people and the things that exist all around us.

For curiosity however, the definition in Merriam-Webster is ‘an eager desire to learn – and often to learn what does not concern one’.

Which is interesting. Curious, even.

It suggests a link back to a popular phrase we were told as children: that ‘curiosity killed the cat’. Or to put it another way: ‘don’t go poking your nose into other people’s affairs, and don’t be overly inquisitive about things which don’t concern you, as it will only cause trouble’.

It illustrates that Curiosity is not always seen as a popular or desirable trait. I was often in trouble at school for ‘asking too many questions’ and ‘being disruptive’. I was told almost every week to just ‘knuckle down and get on with my work’ while my teachers told us to read passages from a book or copy down what they’d written on the board. Being naturally curious mostly just got me a spell in detention.

Might that explain why so many leaders are not at all fascinated by why things are the way they are and prefer to focus instead on action, efficiency, targets and data?

A book by Ian Leslie entitled ‘Curious’ explores this phenomenon in a number of interesting ways and puts forward some arguments which I find convincing.

He examines the way modern life, so driven to save time and cut corners – and to use technology as an easier alternative option to thinking – has discouraged genuine curiosity and replaced it with quick, easy access to information.

As he says:

“…because information is now so easy to obtain, we don’t actually need to know things. I don’t even need to know my way around my hometown, I can just ask Google maps to show me the best route to get to my favourite places”.

He goes on to talk about some of the unforeseen impacts of that freedom to find instant and easy answers, which he believes undermines genuine curiosity by enabling us to avoid engaging with the real mystery of a puzzle. If we can just transactionally seek to find a solution, we may then accept that answer uncritically, even when it is clearly bunk.

If you haven’t needed to think in much depth about your questions, might almost any answer seem plausible?

Our need for speed, action and progress often leads us to rush headlong into situations where a more measured, calm appraisal might have led us to act differently – or not to act at all. It also encourages us to miss many of the nuances and opportunities of a ‘problem’ in favour of the straight line and the shortest route from A to B.

I can almost hear my father’s voice telling me “There’s no time to mess about. Just get on with it”. He was always a big fan of the direct route.

But then – he was a leader when workplaces had changed very little for decades, most of the people in charge looked and sounded just like him and most of the problems he needed to solve were ones he’d encountered many times before. The only technologies he had access to were the dial telephone and an old-school typewriter. Most important of all, he was ‘the boss’ and no-one questioned or challenged his decisions – they just assumed he was right and did what he said.

Does that sound like the way you work now?

For most of us now, everything is not only very different but also in a state of flux. We are often facing problems and challenges that are not just new, but ones that may not be possible to resolve.

Perhaps a little curiosity might help us there. If we are to meet the challenges of a volatile world that shifts from day to day, we need a far deeper understanding of the influencing forces, and we need to understand far more about the way people respond to uncertainty and our expectations. Today’s leader needs to understand human nature to an extent that my father’s generation would have thought ridiculous.

So much of the work we need people to do today is creative rather than mechanical, requires critical thinking rather than diligent and repetitive action and requires collaboration across borders rather than teams in a silo. The skills and experience many of us have spent years developing is often now out of date or irrelevant and we need to be curious to find out what might be better or more suited to the challenges we face.

The role of the leader is rarely now to give instructions and demand results. We need to be facilitators, enablers and inspirers of optimum performance.

If that doesn’t make you curious to know more, then contemporary leadership may not be a good career choice.

So, if you want to be a more curious leader, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do people fascinate you?
  • Are you intrigued to understand why they think and do the things they do?
  • Are you a reflective practitioner, who often considers who you really are and how that affects the people around you?
  • Do you always think there’s a better answer out there somewhere?

If you just said no to some of those, you may be in trouble…

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