I’ve worked with many leaders over the years, and I can say that one of the biggest differentiators in whether someone is a good leader or a bad leader is his or her level of intellectual curiosity. While I’ve worked with leaders who were curious and not very good, I cannot say that I’ve worked with any good leaders who were not curious. Being curious is one of the best ways leaders can learn and foster engagement.
When I was young, I visited my father’s workplace during a “bring your kid to work day.” I was probably 12 years old. He was an executive, and part of his role was leading the logistics organization for a global enterprise. This responsibility entailed everything from global custodial services to global transportation. During my visit, we toured one of the facilities. As we walked around, he would stop to say hello to various workers, blue- and white-collar alike. He engaged in the usual small talk, asking how they were and how their families were, before talking about work.
One thing that struck me was that he mostly asked questions: “What do you think?” “How would you handle that?” “Is there a batter way to do that?” In retrospect, the reaction these questions elicited from his employees is even more interesting. They instantly became more animated and engaged as he asked them questions. They nodded, they smiled and they seemed proud. Far from being an inquisition, he genuinely wanted their perspectives and opinions, which seemed to please the people who worked for him.
Of course it did — who wouldn’t be pleased to have a senior vice president genuinely ask them for their opinion? How proud might a custodian be when the “big boss” recognized their experience and expertise by asking for their advice?
I asked my dad why he wanted the opinion of a custodian. Wasn’t it his job just to tell custodians what to do? “No,” he laughed. “I’m not a custodian. That guy has been doing that work for a long time and knows much more about it than I do. That’s why I have him working for us. Plus, you never know what you’ll find out if you just ask questions. When you talk to people about what they do for a living, people will tell you everything you want to know. Because most people are proud of what they know. And when they do, you always learn something.”
Being curious not only helped my father learn, but it also developed an enormous level of engagement from his employees by demonstrating to them that he thought their opinion was valuable and worth asking for.
The flip side of the curious leader is the leader who knows it all, has no time for other people’s opinions and perspectives, and wants to be the smartest person in the room. We’ve all worked for such leaders, and we’ve all left jobs because of them. Many of these folks may obtain results, but they do not learn much, and they certainly do not generate any followership.
How can you become more curious?
You can start being a better leader right now by asking questions. Ask employees what they think and why they think it. When they have an idea, instead of shooting it down, ask them how they reached that conclusion and why they think it’s valuable — even if you think it’s not a good idea. Ask them if they think there is a better way to do something. Ask them to tell you about the expertise they’ve developed over the years. When something goes wrong, don’t look for blame; instead, ask how you can make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Ask questions consistently, up and down your organization, and I guarantee you will learn a great deal and generate levels of engagement you haven’t seen in a long time.