The Impact of Curious Leaders

A couple of weeks ago, in a post examining the skill of asking questions, I stated that knowing how to ask the right questions at the right time, and in the right way is one of the most important skills a leader can have. I think this is true. But why is it true? Perhaps because curiosity is an essential component of leadership.

Curiosity can be defined simply as a desire to learn, and a desire to know. And, I’d suggest that’s it’s virtually impossible for any organization to move forward in any meaningful way without a constant focus on learning. In other words, curiosity is a requirement for growth.

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” ― Walt Disney Company

Curiosity is not only a means of expanding knowledge, but also a way to build relationships, form partnerships, and gaining a deeper understanding of our industry and the people we serve.

As such, leaders have a responsibility to create a culture where continuous learning and knowledge sharing is encouraged – even expected. In this type of environment, solving problems and overcoming roadblocks becomes not only possible, but interesting and rewarding. In turn, interesting and rewarding work often sparks further curiosity, resulting in ingenuity, which sparks greater curiosity, and on and on it goes.

As with most things, creating this cultural element begins with it being present in the character of our leaders.

Encouraging your natural curiosity requires an open attitude about learning and the humility to accept what you don’t yet know. Ideally, this attitude is supported by a mistake-positive culture in which people are rewarded for making the right kind of mistakes. In this type of environment, rather than berating staff for taking a risk and failing, leaders encourage active learning from mistakes as a way of advancing the organization’s agenda and goals.

However, if you find yourself tasked with creating a curious, mistake-positive culture, in what is presently a negative, restrictive environment, it can be challenging to not become overwhelmed to the point of complacency. If that’s where you find yourself today, let’s explore ways in which you might employ curiosity to elevate your leadership game.

Let curiosity pave new roads.

When tasked with a new project or role, most of us are inclined to gather facts and stack them on the foundation of our own past experience. This approach can create labels and box us in to restrictive thinking that actually causes roadblocks. An alternate approach is to be open and curious about what success might look like from the perspective of others – our customers, members, board members and staff. Gaining this perspective requires the consideration of a few open-ended curiosity questions, such as…

What are some of the most pressing challenges you face right now? What needs to happen now to create greater efficiency? How will we know that we are achieving success in this endeavor? What has been your experience so far? How will we know that whatever solution we select is the right one?

Take conscious, meaningful action.

Anytime we’ve been in a role for a long time, it’s tempting settle into that comfort zone and allow complacency to lull us to sleep. We can wake ourselves up with the reminder of how much we don’t know about possibilities that have not yet been identified. Here are some transformational curiosity questions to get the juices flowing…

What challenges am I facing now? What am I afraid of? What are my weakest areas in this role? What resources do I need expand my current leadership capability? What are the weakest areas in my team? What resourced do they lack to improve? How will I hold them accountable? What is my level of engagement with my superiors, staff, and members? What can I do to create relationships that have a greater impact?

Think in terms of actions that will make the greatest impact.

While a curious attitude tends to provoke action, action itself is not the point. The point is action that creates a lasting positive impact. We must also be open to constant reflection about the reality of our level of impact and curious about whether we can do better. Ask yourself…

How have my actions improved my ability to lead? What have I done recently that’s impacted others? Are there things I need to do less of? More of? How are the collective actions of my team making a tangible difference? Is there a connection between our decisions and our purpose and values?

Curiosity has the inevitable effect of creating new possibilities for ourselves and those we lead. Or, perhaps it’s more about seeing possibilities that we there all along. Regardless, it’s important that we ask plenty of questions with an open mind and humble attitude that’s hungry for learning and knowledge. In the words of Helen Keller, “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”


About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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