Curiosity and leadership

‘We run this company on questions, not answers.’ Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO from 2001 to 2011

     Leading at a high profile, managing an organization, whether large or small, has its own poetry. This poetry has nothing to do with bossing around. Rather, it has to do with putting the hands deep into the mud, just like children do, and molding it all day, getting terribly dirty and satisfied. The desire to play and curiosity, again just like children, are major drivers in this game. Once you start molding, you will want to continue all day and you just can’t wait getting back to office the following day to start all over again. 

     Molding a visionary project requires curiosity at all stages. As you work the mud (which basically is the same of working the project) with an idea of your direction and objective, you constantly mold and remold searching for better alternatives, exploring for better solutions. That is the most exhilarating and exciting stage of the project: all doors are still open, curiosity drives actions, observing the team’s and each team-member’s personal approach, can influence a new and different direction, expectations correspond to the objective of the project. Dirty hands (in the positive meaning) and high expectations, this stage is all it’s worth being a leader for. 

     Curiosity is an exploratory behavior that permits to investigate an environment and orientate in that environment. An exploratory behavior is of ancient and vital importance because it allows to gain information about an environment and ensure survival. However, this behavior is not abandoned when the environment becomes known. An intelligent human being, just like animals, will persist in an exploratory behavior, obviously not anymore seeking information about the environment but to maintain constantly updated this information and to examine and consider possible alternatives, reduce uncertainties, improve conditions. 

     Curiosity benefits the organization’s performance, by improving experience and knowledge thus reducing decision-making errors, by improving innovation and positive changes, by improving team performance and relations level.

     Businesses and organizations, because of their nature, constantly change and transform in the quest to better adapt and perform in the market. When you begin a growth path and you expand this tendency to a global level even a high-quality leader may face issues like lack of experience and knowledge. This gap in turn impacts the decision-making process and the leader’s effectiveness. Curiosity fuels observation and learning and as a result it in fact offers the foundation for leadership improvement towards a better knowledge and decision-making. Curiosity stimulates attentiveness and investigation, revealing to the leader’s sensibility where he or she is lacking, encouraging the leader to seek specific support or find adequate information.

     Curiosity impacts innovation and positive changes. No matter if the job is creative or not, curiosity actually leads us as leaders and the team to generate alternatives, which can be discussed every once in a while, for example by setting up a cyclical ‘curiosity session’ where all the team participates. This becomes a sort of focalized brainstorming session, by a competent group who is dedicated to one single objective and thus, having a high level of knowhow, which may truly offer surprising and effective solutions, based on each single’s experience and creativity. It will be the leader’s duty to put the final word on the most effective solution and adopt it or continue on the path taken. Curiosity also generates workplace improvements. It should become a habit to set aside a few minutes each week dedicated to the question ‘why?’ and what can be changed in the workplace for the better. We are talking here of positive suggestions that the team should be always allowed to propose and exchange. This affects directly the overall efficiency of the ongoing project.

     Curiosity improves team performance because whatever the dedication of each member of the team to the project, once the spark of curiosity is ignited in the team, their involvement will be considerably heightened. In this case curiosity generates participation and observation at a higher level and is a direct and simple way for the leader to make the team feel the property of the project. Seeking alternatives to a known path also ensures that each member of the team sees the project from an overall point of view and, as they try to find alternatives, realize the intrinsic characteristics and difficulties of the project. Whether an alternative solution is found or not, curiosity has helped better understand the project, the team’s work and, to a certain extent, also the leader’s work. Ideas are shared and each member of the team is now able to see the project not only from their own perspective but also from a different perspective. This tones down conflicts, generates better team relations and ultimately better results. 

     There is a direct relation between curiosity and creativity. A curious approach will enable more creative alternatives.

     Curiosity is an exploratory behavior and an individual’s positive approach to new information that recurs in high quality leaders. Observing is an art and asking the right questions can make the difference from failure to success, no matter the stage in the career of the leader. In fact, curiosity is one of the best tools a leader has. It can be used not only day by day, but it should become a general mindset of the leader and the team. Results are surprising.

     Probably the most interesting aspect of taking curiosity into an organization is the establishment of a new company culture that directly affects the company’s efficiency. Curiosity changes the mindset. It acknowledges there will always be problems, most of them hidden from the view of the leader and the team. This approach raises the level of attentiveness of all the working group allowing not only to uncover problems that arise during the journey but even to anticipate them with the attitude that a problem, in fact, is not a problem moving the team away from the objective, it is on the contrary a new solution approaching the team to the goal and giving the team new and better tools for the next issue. This mindset greatly increases company performance, lessens aggressivity in a stressed or difficult environment, transforms a defensive reaction to a difficulty into a creative reaction, to the benefit of the project. 

     Wonder is that feeling of surprise mingled with beauty, unexpected and inexplicable that comes with inspiration. It is exactly what a high leader feels after he or she has a vision for a new solution and activates a project to make it real. Wonder is the primary motivator of a leader; it is what fascinates and attracts others toward the leader, as part of the leader’s charisma. Wonder keeps alive the entire process of leadership, enlightening it with enthusiasm, and frequently passes on, to a certain extent, to the team. In this sense wonder is a very strong bonding element that should always be encouraged. It opens a direct channel of communication within the team and often leads to the use of specific words or concepts that only the team is able to understand and share, in a spirit of belonging and exclusivity towards a shared goal. 

     ‘I have no special talents I am only passionately curios.’ Albert Einstein