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Of all the characteristics of a strong business leader, curiosity might not be among the top things that instantly come to mind. And yet it does come up from well-established CEOs. An example, from a Harvard Business Review story by Warren Berger:

“When asked recently to name the one attribute CEOs will need most to succeed in the turbulent times ahead, Michael Dell, the chief executive of Dell, Inc., replied, ‘I would place my bet on curiosity.’”

Berger calls it “the era of the curious leader,” a time when “success may be less about having all the answers and more about wondering and questioning. As Dell noted, curiosity can inspire leaders to continually seek out the fresh ideas and approaches needed to keep pace with change and stay ahead of competitors.”

Here’s a look at how curiosity can benefit business leaders.

Showing a different side

Confidence is naturally an important characteristic for executives. Just as important is a leader being comfortable in understanding what he or she doesn’t know, and being openly willing to learn more about it. Adam Bryant, author of The Corner Office, describes “passionately curious” executives for The New York Times. They don’t often show that side of themselves in public, he writes, which is by design: “Certainty is the game face they wear. They’ve cracked the code.”

“But get them away from these familiar scripts, and a different side emerges,” Bryant explains. “They share stories about failures and doubts and mistakes. They ask big-picture questions. They wonder why things work the way they do and whether those things can be improved upon. They want to know people’s stories, and what they do.”

Bryant writes that CEOs aren’t always “the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students.” The kinds of questions they ask can be a good indication of that willingness to learn: “They recognize that they can’t have the answer to everything, but they can push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees by asking the right questions.”


CEOs that are willing to open their minds to new information and opinions can also lead their companies into new territory. Innovation should always be a priority, for future growth potential and new revenue streams. John Marshall describes “relentless curiosity” in a story for tech site The Next Web, writing that it “is the hallmark of leaders like Google, Amazon, Tesla and other innovators.”

“Their executives fill their schedules by learning, probing and encouraging,” he says. “They thrive in an environment where opinions and ideas are readily solicited and shared. They live as sponges. They arrive at work feeling there is so much they don’t yet know.”

Marshall includes several questions that business leaders can ask themselves in relation to curiosity:

  • “Do I surround myself with inspiring, sometimes even odd, big thinkers?”
  • “Is my schedule packed with meetings and daily decisions, or freed to explore new frontiers?”
  • “Do I use every interaction, from the colleague to the driver, to ask new people about how they think and feel?”

Communication and analysis

Beyond looking for new directions and innovative concepts, a sense of curiosity can encourage dialogue among employees, which can then serve as a boost to overall communication. As Jeff Boss writes for Forbes, it allows for adaptability, and finding “a new angle of perspective.”

“Asking ‘how can we do XYZ better?’ is no good without first asking, ‘Why are we doing XYZ in the first place?’” he writes. “While being results driven is important, asking the questions — the right questions — ensures you’re on the right track.”

How curiosity can develop

Curiosity comes naturally for some business leaders. It’s part of who they are and how they have risen to leadership heights in business. It may not come as easily for others. But a sense of curiosity can grow and be developed over time. Katherine Graham-Leviss points out several ways this can happen for Harvard Business Review, writing that learning new information “demonstrates engagement and loyalty to company goals.” Among her suggestions:

  • Assess skill levels: “Examine how these skills will help achieve long-term goals. Identify what other skills or knowledge would move you in this direction.”
  • Encourage education: “Create a learning environment or community to encourage the free flow of new knowledge and perspectives.”
  • Acknowledge missteps: “Stimulate new thinking by examining mistakes and setbacks as opportunities to learn. Mistakes prompt you to look inward and think about your limitations. By studying your patterns of behavior, you can recognize and correct your behaviors that repeatedly result in mistakes, miscalculations, or the misreading of a situation.”

Building a curious culture

The benefits of learning can be widespread among a business’ staff. For employees who thrive on creativity, having an avenue to explore new ideas and concepts can increase their engagement and overall job satisfaction. Colin Baird writes about this for CEO.com: “By allowing and encouraging everyone to develop their own ideas of improvement, and by transforming leadership to make it possible, companies can avoid the loss of employee creativity.”

Baird details examples of this sort of curiosity and creativity. The first is Google’s onetime “20 percent policy” — as in employees could use that much of their time “to work on any project they wanted,” work-related or not, he writes. “The policy enabled employees to keep creativity and awareness high as they innovated, grew and continuously improved the company. … While the 20 percent policy has disappeared, its purpose remains clear: innovate or die as an organization.”

And 3M created a similar policy decades ago, Baird writes, allowing employees to spend 15 percent of their time “towards any ideas that go beyond their core responsibilities.” He points out that Dr. Spence Silver created Post-It Notes for 3M during this time.

Learning and humility

CEOs that come across as experts in all things may contribute to an intimidating workplace. It can be encouraging for employees to see leaders acknowledge where they lack expertise and show that they want to know more. As Boss writes for Forbes, “To ask powerful questions there must be a balance between humility and confidence.”

“You must be humble enough to know you don’t have all the answers and confident enough to admit it,” he says. “Unfortunately, both humility and curiosity are oftentimes seen as weaknesses in leadership; acknowledgments of knowledge gaps that a manager, director or executive should not have. The thing is, nothing new comes out of the status quo. There is no innovation, no awareness, no problem solving, no value creation and no adaptability without asking the questions that incite further exploration.”

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