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Curiosity: an underappreciated quality of leadership

Dean Royles, strategic workforce advisor at Skills for Health and co-author of ‘An Introduction to Human Resource Management,’ returns to write for NHE for his blog series on effective leadership.

What if…? Why don’t we try…? What would happen if…? How did we get…? Why did…? How about we try…?

Outside of work, these are questions that we ask ourselves all the time when struggling with family issues or planning our holidays. But it’s not often you hear them from senior organisational leaders – at least not out loud. And yet this curiosity – about work, about life – is essential to help us deepen our understanding of the challenges we face and seek out new and creative solutions to problems.

This blog is the third in a series of the underappreciated qualities of leadership. The first was patience, and the second was gentleness.

Now, I’m sure many of the leaders I know – indeed most of them – have an innate curiosity, a desire to understand and explore what is happening in their organisations, and to make better, more sustainable decisions – to try and make the right decision. It’s just that curiosity isn’t always evident. It isn’t something done in public or, as far as I’m aware, taught on leadership programmes. It may be that curiosity has a bit of bad press – as the old saying goes, ‘curiosity killed the cat.’

I also think curiosity can be perceived by some as displaying a lack of understanding. And indeed, some people in leadership positions may be reluctant to show vulnerability by asking questions. Unfortunately, the age of the all-knowing, omniscient leader has cast a long and unhelpful shadow.

But the world of work is changing so rapidly that we can’t always rely on tried and tested methods. The problems we face are different, so the solutions we need to find are different. As organisations become more diverse, there is an enormous amount of untapped knowledge in our organisation that a little curiosity can go a very long way to uncovering.

Curious leaders recognise that they don’t – indeed, can’t – know everything. Curious leaders are more open, listen more, and are more receptive to new experiences. This curiosity allows them to see the world and problems differently. This curiosity also means they seek out people different to them, from different backgrounds and cultures, people who think differently.

Curiosity in senior leaders is a great attribute to creating more diverse organisations. These curious leaders are also less likely to recruit in their own image: they feel empowered, rather than threatened, by difference. They thrive on being challenged and recognise their own limitations. Their curiosity is a sign of strength, not of weakness. It is such a shame that when we see curiosity displayed by entrepreneurs or people running new start up and tech companies, that we celebrate their curious spirt or nature and emphasis the value it brings to the organisation. We really can celebrate and highlight curious leaders in the public sector much more. In a rapidly changing world, we need curious leaders now!

The evidence tells us that more diverse organisations are more profitable and provide better services. Curious leaders help build diversity, both cognitively and demographically diverse. When looking for a competitive advantage or to engage in more creative ways to identify solutions curiosity is clearly an excellent attribute – but a curious mind is also a fantastic attribute when it comes to connecting with people and getting the best out of them. Curiosity is not just one of the most underappreciated qualities of leadership. It is, perhaps, one of the most important qualities of leadership.

Now, what if…?


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