My dad was intensely curious. Here’s why you should be too (especially right now)

My dad was an intensely curious man. Sure, he was a Professor of Education and did his PhD thesis on creativity in science – so maybe he had a running start on the whole curiosity thing. However, I also think it was in-built into his psyche and the benefits of his curious mind were plentiful – not only in his professional life, but also when it came to being a dad.

When I was a kid, he’d always be asking me and my older brothers an endless stream of curious questions, which I used to find a bit exasperating at times, but that I am now extremely grateful for.

“What do you think this picture is telling us?”

“Why does the earth revolve around the sun and not the other way around?” (complete with an orange and a grapefruit in each hand).

“What is the most important thing that happened to you today?”

My dad always asked these curious questions in a non-judgmental way, like there was no right or wrong answer. Rather, he seemed genuinely interested in what answers we’d come up with. He would listen intently and follow his curious question up with another equally curious question. His curiosity not only engendered inquisitiveness in me and my brothers, but it also helped us to cultivate a thinking, questioning mind.

Curiosity is a leadership superpower.

Sure, there are some other things you should be focusing intently on right now as a leader. See here and here for just a few. But curiosity is perhaps one of the most important leadership traits you should cultivate at this time, especially as we’re facing a virus that’s sweeping our world and turning organisations on their head. New, creative solutions are definitely what’s called for right now.

Here’s why my dad was onto something when it comes to cultivating curiosity:

60 percent of polled CEOs have ranked creativity as the essential skill for leaders to hone, according to data published in Fast Company. And in her HBR article Why Curiosity Matters, Francesca Gino outlines four big benefits of creativity in organisations:  

It leads to…

  • Improvements and innovation in the way you do business.
  • Fewer decision-making errors
  • Reduced group conflict
  • Better communication and better team performance

Perhaps most importantly, a creative mind-set helps you navigate uncertain times with more ease and less angst – which is kinda handy as a leader right now, I’d say.

But here’s the rub: Although almost every leader I work with espouses the virtues of creativity – vehemently nodding their heads when discussing the benefits of adding creativity into their organisation’s psyche – many leaders quell creativity because they worry it will be costly or they inadvertently stifle it with the culture and systems of their organisation.

Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned and senior leader or an emerging one, here are four simple ways you can cultivate curiosity – not just in your own leadership practice, but also in those you lead:

  1. Brainstorm more often (and more effectively)

Mind-mapping and brainstorming encourage us to explore beyond the first, “right” answer. These tools enable us to get beyond the self-imposed constraints of rigid and logical thinking. Here are some tips to run an effective brainstorming session I wrote a wee while back. And here’s a great introduction into mind-mapping for leaders by another leadership strategist, Hilary Jane Grosskopf.

  1. Prototype

As Tom Peters put it, “Test fast, fail fast, adjust fast.” You don’t have to go all in. Dip your toe in the water with an idea that doesn’t bring the whole house down. “Ooch” (which means to conduct small experiments to test your hypothesis) as Dan and Chip Heath espouse in their book, Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions in Life and Work. How can you test and make a small bet, then review and improve it before you embark on a full market rollout?

  1. Create a culture in which creativity can flourish

You can’t mandate or force creativity, but you can create the conditions within which it can flourish. How?

  • Build in regular reflection – into projects, your own week, and with your team. Reflection is critical to team performance; learning from direct experience can be more effective when coupled with reflection.
  • Focus on highlighting and encouraging creative approaches from your team members, not just the end result. Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mind-set is handy for this approach. For every one brilliant idea, you’ve got to get comfortable with the five ideas that weren’t, but which have value too and which nevertheless cultivated a curious mind-set.
  • Seek diverse and divergent opinions. That not only means building your team with diversity in mind, but also actively seeking out divergent and dissenting opinions. See this blog I wrote on why weird is good.   
  • Check your initial response to someone in your team who has a new and creative idea. A lot of great creations or innovations weren’t flash in their first form but they had a nugget of brilliance. If you cut someone down or criticise too soon, it most often results in less creative ideas coming your way.
  1. Finally, ask more open-ended, creative questions.

Ask them not only to yourself, but also when it comes to those you lead. Here are just a few curious questions to get you started…

“What if…?”

“How would we approach this situation if we framed it as an opportunity rather than a problem?”

“What else….? And what else?”

“How might we…?”

“What is another way to look at this?”

“Is there a metaphor for this?” Look to nature, history, archetypes, different cultures, or something completely unrelated to the issue at hand and see if that sparks creative discussions.

My dad died four years ago. There have been many moments since then when I’ve missed his curious, inquisitive mind. I’m sure that his questions would have helped me many times over the last four years in both my professional and personal life. But then I ask myself, what would dad ask right now? And bang! A great, curious question pops into my mind! You can channel this idea too, and I would even go so far as to say you should.

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2 Comments

  1. Lynette Evans on May 29, 2020 at 11:24 am

    This is incredibly brilliant Susie – a great accolade to your dad as well.
    Gosh we learn a lot and sometimes we did not even know we were learning – I can say same for my dad!! What a generation they were. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Suzi McAlpine on June 16, 2020 at 5:50 pm

      Yeah Lynnette. Totally. I love how you speak of how we don’t even know we are learning. It’s like we are immersed in the goodness. And we don’t even know it until way down the track. At least that’s what I hope with my kids haha!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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