3 practices exceptional CEOs adopt to boost their leadership curiosity


One leadership quality that’s little talked about but probably accounts for a significant effect on leadership effectiveness is the leader’s curiosity.

The importance of staying curious and having a sense of wonder about customers, products, teams, the ecosystem that the leader’s organisation is part of, etc., cannot be overemphasized.

Curiosity helps you adapt to a rapidly changing environment, spot trends on the horizon and take away the malaise of hubris that destroys the careers of many promising CEOs.

The curiosity of exceptional leaders like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos etc. has enhanced the quality of life for everyone. What lessons can we learn from these leaders about curiosity? Here are 3 critical routines that can boost your curiosity and broaden your perspective for enhanced leadership effectiveness.

Learning to say “I don’t know”

There is so much happening around us that no leader can claim to know everything and have all the answers. Unfortunately, as leaders our stakeholders expect us to know everything and to have ready answers for them when they come to us. It’s almost a sign of conceding defeat when you say “I don’t know”. Saying “I don’t know” offers growth opportunities to the leader. Saying “I don’t know” permits the leader to accept a learnable moment and enhance his understanding. Saying “I don’t know” also allows a leader’s perspective to be broadened by the perspectives of those around him.

The challenge for many leaders is that they have created a scenario wherein they are expected to know and have all the answers. Hence, saying “I don’t know” becomes a sign of weaknesses. For every leader, saying “I don’t know” offers the opportunity to reflect a bit more on the issue at hand rather thanregurgitating learned responses.

I observed how a team literally glowed in a leader’s presence when he said “I don’t know” to their questions. The team of experts had come to see him for direction on an assignment. How wrong he would have been if he had suggested what needed to be done. He gave the group a sense of ownership and an opportunity to do awesome work based on their expertise. All he did was say “I don’t know” and express faith in their collective ability to do the work assigned. Saying “I don’t know” and soliciting others’ views enhances engagement, as team members begin to feel listened to. They also develop a sense of pride that they have made an input in shaping the leader’s understanding of the issue at hand.

Asking great and transformative questions daily

The childlike questioning instinct is a great tool that feeds our curiosity. Of course, we become adults and we would like to live as adults – and so we give up on a very effective method for understanding our world. Thomas Edison never lost it. He is known to have asked too many questions and never did his homework. He kept on asking questions on the job. Asking different question allows your team to approach the same issue with a different mind-set.

Several great CEOs have developed a set of daily questions that they use to enable them focus on what matters. Steve Jobs’ daily question was: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” This is a question Steve Jobs asked daily for almost four decades of his life. And he said “Whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something”.

In order to start asking great questions, first take account of the questions you have been asking. What are the typical questions you ask in meetings? What has driven you to those questions? Secondly, determine to craft new questions which explore issues you may have ignored in the past. One good question to ask about any issue being discussed is “what questions are we not asking?” After spending spent eight months with a colleague, the only thing I remember clearly after 15 years is the question he asked almost on a daily basis. His favourite question was “what is the value addition?” This is a question every CEO can use to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Harnessing the power of feedback

It’s documented that feedback from peers and bosses is the single most important developmental intervention for a leader on the way to a CEO position. The leader becomes the CEO of the organisation and practically runs out of bosses who give feedback by virtue of their position in the management hierarchy. In some organisations, the board dynamics make it impossible for the CEO to receive any meaningful developmental feedback from this group of people who are expected to hold the CEO accountable and support their leadership development. Successful CEOs develop rigorous mechanisms to actively harvest feedback from stakeholders, which enables them to avoid “the emperor has no clothes” scenario.

You can start harnessing the power of feedback by asking your stakeholders for suggestion on how you can be a better leader and serve them well. You may not receive meaningful responses the first time you ask this question, but you must start. Depending on your existing culture, your team members may even be surprised and conceive of your action as a ‘trap’ as happened to one CEO I coached when I asked him to seek feedback from across the organisation. You need to engage one on one, explain the reason for asking for feedback, and make your team (especially lower level staff) feel comfortable to do so. Over time, your team will give you effective feedback when they come to believe in the sincerity of your efforts.

Making these three critical routines part of your leadership requires humility, courage and discipline. In a world of rapid change, these cannot be ignored. Boosting curiosity makes leaders adaptive and context-agile, which sustains exceptional CEO performance.

The 3 Practices highlighted in the article above are part of the Breaking Barriers to CEO Learning Curriculum, which is the Foundational Module on the CEO Accelerator Programme. 

Robert Marshall Bennin, CPTD, CFA, FIoD, is a Certified Executive Educator and Coach. He is the Founder and Chief Learning Strategist at TEMPLE Advisory, (www.thelearningtemple.com) a specialist leadership development, executive coaching and strategy consulting firm focused on accelerating enterprise transformation. As an executive educator and coach, Robert assists highly capable leaders to get even better by facilitating their learning, enabling them to think strategically and expand their capacity for personal leadership and enterprise transformation. Robert is a Marshall Goldsmith Certified Executive Coach. He is also a Leadership Subject Matter Expert on the MBA Program at the African Leadership University in Rwanda and the Convenor of the CEO Accelerator Programme.

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