Curiosity as a leadership trait has surged in popularity recently. It is a quality that can underlie authentic diversity and our ability to really uncover the ‘why’ of something. When you consider the power of diversity, doing things a different way, or making improvements, it all comes from a sense of curiosity.

Merriam-Webster defines curiosity as ‘the desire to learn or know more about something or someone’. That sounds simple enough, but essentially any pursuit for insight, growth, change or challenging the status quo (a leadership favourite of Kouzes Pousner), is founded in curiosity. As a skill, curiosity can also be an indicator of how well people will get on with, and understand, their co-workers. It reminds me of the famous Stephen Covey saying, ‘first seek to understand before seeking to be understood’.

The curiosity advantage

Curiosity is a valuable attribute to have in your organisation. From a leadership perspective, there are reasons why someone with a sense of curiosity is likely to break down more barriers than someone who just tells people what to do. As long as it is not overpowering, curiosity can make someone feel like you are truly interested in them. It can also drive someone’s capacity to work better with a broad range of people. Michael Dell, in PwC’s 2015 leadership survey of attributes for success, cited curiosity as one of the most important. He is renowned for sitting in executive meetings in silence until near the end and asking just one question that ‘nails’ the issue.

One company I worked with had a general manager with a knack for insight into his people, their roles, the things they liked and what frustrated them. On further investigation, I discovered his staff had a great deal of respect for him. His key was asking unusual questions, such as when his sales manager visited customers in rural areas, he asked what the mobile coverage was like, or for his finance staff, how courteous suppliers were if they were chasing money. His questions were particularly effective because they were out of the ordinary and didn’t prompt a standard answer. They usually led to a wider conversation that gave him greater insight into his people.

Information versus insight

Our ability to find information and answers, within easy reach, has never been greater. As a result, it is no longer information that is the key – it is the question. Asking, or being asked, the right question is paramount. The leader that can focus everyone’s attention on the right issue has the advantage.

Empowered versus controlled

The other side to curiosity is that it is now far more valuable to help people enlighten themselves and feel empowered in the process, rather than handing them a finished solution. Not only is it a powerful way to engage, but it builds a wider and more independent organisational capacity as opposed to a dependent and vulnerable one.

Identifying curiosity

In an interview situation, you can understand someone’s curiosity by asking such questions as:

  • How did you learn a new skill?
  • How did you understand how something worked?
  • How did you find a new way of doing something?
  • How did you understand how to work with a colleague or manager?

Seek out situations where the person may have used curiosity to find a solution or where they sought to improve themselves.

We have included curiosity in our recently developed CDI/Proactivity Scale. This instrument has been developed drawing on an understanding of the attributes necessary for success as a trusted advisor. It is based on the idea that curiosity (C), a desire to make a difference (D) and self-improvement (I) are strong indicators of someone’s capacity as a trusted advisor. Alongside proactivity, we find these to be central to many leadership roles. Through a simply administered online test, it is a new way to support your interview and reference check findings. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more.

In the meantime, consider exploring the value of curiosity within your organisation.

Happy recruiting!