One of the most important traits for success as a business leader is curiosity. While this may seem surprising, a PwC survey of over 1,000 C-suite leaders in 2015 found that curiosity was one of the most highly valued attributes of a leader. The results, published in the Harvard Business Review, were accompanied by telling remarks from many of the respondents, such as Michael Dell. This tech entrepreneur sees curiosity as the driver of innovation. Curious leaders are asking the questions that lead to new learning and the development of new ideas.
In days past, people frowned upon curiosity in business leaders. A leader was supposed to be thoroughly knowledgeable and a source of direction, not questions. This expectation has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. Now, leaders are only effective if they admit that they do not know it all and open themselves up to new ideas, new ventures, and new revenue streams.
The Link between Curiosity and Leadership
As markets become more competitive and companies continually push for new and exciting ideas, curiosity will emerge as one of a leader’s most critical attributes. At its heart, curiosity leads to competence in the workplace. Curious leaders understand that there is a gap between what they do know and what they want to know. By launching an investigation to fill that gap and sharing results with other employees, leaders give everyone access to the information they need to work more effectively.
When leaders are not asking these questions and sharing results, organizations may have two people working on the same issue or, worse, employees researching a project that is no longer relevant. Curiosity offers context and guidance for the work that people do and ultimately makes their efforts more efficacious.
Curiosity also facilitates adaptability, which is crucial for an organization’s survival during difficult or unexpected conditions. Asking the right questions spurs organizations to examine their assumptions and their presumptions. Identifying these roadblocks opens up new avenues of exploration should the current path become untenable. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck of Stanford University links curiosity to a “growth mindset,” which means that people will keep looking for an answer until they find it. This sort of perseverance is what leaders need to guide companies through difficult times.
Curiosity also generates confidence. To ask questions, leaders need the humility to admit that they do not know the answer and the confidence to announce this to the rest of the company. Researcher Jim Collins has linked humility to strong resolve in the world’s most effective leaders. The results of his studies show that people who have the confidence to ask questions also have the resolve to follow through on the answers.
Unlocking the Potential of Curiosity
The curiosity of a few remarkable leaders has spurred the creation of some of the most successful companies—not to mention entirely new industries. One leader who did just that is Jack Dorsey, the inventor of the Square payment company. After Dorsey saw a friend miss out on a big sale because he couldn’t accept credit cards, he began wondering why smaller entrepreneurs have so few options for accepting credit cards. When he saw that there was really just a hole in the market, he filled it with Square.
Curiosity is about more than simply asking questions. Truly curious leaders ask why things are the way they are and, more importantly, if they could be different. This approach is important because it unlocks the ability to innovate the processes that we take for granted.
Before Dorsey invented Square, many people probably took for granted that they would need cash at a farmers’ market, but Dorsey asked if that is really the way it has to be. Even something as simple as text messaging was envisioned because someone challenged the concept of communicating by voice or e-mail alone. Curiosity involves seeing the unexplored options and having the bravery to explore them.
While curiosity has been the foundation of many successful startups, from Airbnb to Netflix, it is also important for larger and more established corporations. Companies like Panera Bread still attribute their success to the innovation that comes with curiosity. The company’s CEO said that individuals must be on a continual search for new ideas, which often means bringing in concepts from other industries and organizations outside the world of business.
In these larger corporations, becoming more curious often means becoming a different type of leader altogether. Individuals rise through the ranks in these organizations by being authorities and experts who know how to fix things at the drop of a hat. Once these individuals get to a position of leadership, it can be hard to adopt a more humble outlook, but that is exactly what companies today need to survive. At this position, there are no more easy fixes, and it is only through curiosity that true innovations arise.