Why leaders need curiosity

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Why leaders need curiosity

December 16, 2015 -

Over the past few months, candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties have engaged in a series of televised debates. The most recent debate occurred just this week, as the Republican candidates took to the stage in Las Vegas for a vigorous and lengthy exchange. What is interesting to note in all these debates is what leadership qualities each of the candidates is trying to showcase. Across both parties, every candidate has an assumed idea of good leadership and is trying to show the American public that their leadership is vote-worthy.

While it is interesting to pick apart what each candidate says, it is equally important to pick up on what is not being said. One important principle of leadership that barely receives any attention from any of the candidates is about the importance of curiosity and life-long learning. Candidates tend to stick to trying to showcase how they will act rather than how they will think through difficult scenarios.

In David Snowden and Max Boisot’s excellent “Cynefin Sense-Making Framework”, the authors discuss how leaders make decisions, and how decision-making changes in chaotic situations. Snowden and Boisot’s paradigm breaks decision-making into 5 categories: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. The authors prescribe processes for how to make decisions in each of the different categories of situations, and what is fascinating to note is that in all areas except chaos and disorder, which are emergency situations, Snowden and Boisot discuss the need to probe, sense, and analyze the situation before acting.

While many important decisions occur in emergency situations, on a day-to-day level most decisions fall in the other three situational categories: simple, complex, and complicated. But all three require probing, sensing, and analyzing, and at the core of those three activities is the ability to ask questions.

Thomas Friedman coined the term “Curiosity Quotient” in a 2013 New York Times article, arguing that curiosity and passion are the two central characteristics of an intelligent person. There is an abundance of leadership material aimed at helping you stoke the fires of your passion, but minor attention is given to the importance of developing curiosity. Let’s discover simple steps to building this important disposition into your leadership repertoire.

It all begins with asking questions: “Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?” Questions ignite the synapses in our brains to think differently. They help us get out of our auto-pilot mode and into a mode of creative analytical thinking. James MacGregor Burns, in his book Leadership, discusses three questions leaders should constantly be asking themselves: 1) Who is it that you are leading? 2) Where are you seeking to go? (What are your goals?) 3) How will you overcome obstacles to your goals?

As specifically Christian leaders, J. Oswald Sanders provides two additional questions for leaders to ask themselves in his book Spiritual Discipleship: 1) “Is Christ still king of my life in daily practice?” and 2) “Am I a more loving person than I was 3 months ago?”

Take time over the holidays to sit down and reflect upon these questions or discuss them with a trusted friend. The beginning of the new year in January provides an excellent opportunity to ask questions about yourself and what areas you want to improve in as a leader, but we shouldn’t stop there. It is also the perfect time to reflect upon the changes you’ve noticed in your industry and how your company or organization needs to respond. A fruitful time of asking questions opens up the door to reflection and creativity that are crucial to curiosity.

Beyond asking questions, the easiest way to cultivate curiosity as a leader is to seek out new books, ideas, influences, and experiences. Reading outside of your normal rotation is one of the best ways to allow new information to come into your mind, thus sparking curiosity. The practice of synthesizing information from across domains, whether science, literature, philosophy, history, or theology, creates new pathways of connections that help you notice things you may not have noticed before that greatly impact your organization.

It is important to arrive at conclusions, but it is equally important to continue to ask questions. Jesus used questions to get past people’s normal defenses, to probe their hearts. Paul, after being visited by Jesus on the road to Damascus, asked “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10) That’s the best question that we can keep asking as Christian leaders.

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