Curiosity is one of the most undervalued qualities of a person. Steve Jobs talked about how important curiosity was to Apple’s success. He also talks about how unimpressed he was by Michael Eisner because he completely lacked curiosity. Curiosity is important in leadership. If you aren’t curious as to what is going on around you and how you and your team can improve it, you probably shouldn’t be in a leadership position.
Leaders ask tons of questions. They take an active interest in people and teams. How’s the project coming along? Where are we at with this? What potential problems might we face here? Is this timetable realistic? Who else outside of our industry can we learn from that has solved this problem? What else can we sell our current customers? How happy are our current customers? These questions are fundamental to any leader or manager. The staff’s answers should prompt even more questions.
Further, asking Why five times can get one to the root of a problem. This rule comes from the Toyota Management System and the book, The Toyota Way. Whenever an issue arose on the production system, the Toyota manager responsible for the area under scrutiny was tasked with leaving the building to go and see for himself. Then, upon initial inspection, the protocol would be to not come down harshly on the production employee, but to ask him / her repeated questions, typically in a Five Whys fashion, about what happened in order to get to the root cause of the problem. The aim is to never have the problem arise again. As Eric Ries points out in his wonderful book, The Lean Startup, the Five Whys can be transferred to startup root-cause analysis and to software development practices.
Among the many great things about using the Five Whys to find the root of the problem is it evokes curiosity out of people instead of harsh condemnations and proscriptions. Don’t get mad — get curious. What good does anger do you or your team whenever problems arise? Wake up: problems always arise. The unforeseen is always right around the corner. The best we can do is plan for it and yet expect chaos. Worse, if you get mad at the messenger for bringing you problems and issues, guess what that makes future messengers not want to do: bring problems to you. Once your people stop shedding light on organizational or competitive issues to you, you’re in trouble. Again, curiosity solves this problem by simply asking more questions until you feel you’ve discovered the true cause of the issue.
Curiosity works as an antidote to anxiety. It may not be a cure-all for everyone. But if we take the time to ask ourselves questions about our feelings, about our current emotional state, and talk ourselves through it, we may find we can discover a more positive outcome than simply sitting and stewing in the negative emotion.
We rarely question our assumptions.
If you have great uncertainty in your life, try getting curious about it instead of simply being scared. Question what you don’t know and what you know. Repeatedly ask yourself one of Ray Dalio’s favorite questions, is that true? Is that really a portend to a future reality? Question your assumptions and others’.
One of the greatest qualities and challenges leaders and coaches offer others is the ability to question peoples’ assumptions. We walk around all day long with our own personal assumptions on how the world works, our own worldview. Almost none of us thinks to question our view of the world, nor our assumptions and thought patterns of its function. We just keep on keepin’ on and go about our business. It takes a good coach or forward-thinking leader to jostle us out of our zombie-like thinking patterns and to question what it is we’re thinking about. A coach will push you to question your abilities in the gym. A coach will push you to think you’re more capable than you think. A coach will lightly (or more harshly) accost you for eating poorly this week. A good leader will question our assumptions about the competition. A good leader will question a product launch timeline and push for an earlier release as Steve Jobs did with his reality distortion field. A good leader will even question himself and his abilities and realize when he is outside of his competency.
It is always a best practice to be that which you desire to see in others.
Alan Mulally was one of the most curious leaders while at the helm of Ford. His business plan review meetings were all about asking questions and solving organizational problems. It was simply This is where we’re at and How do we make it better? Who wants to help this guy out here? Green. Yellow. Red. If we’re in the Red, that’s trouble. Let’s get on that. These meetings were about honesty and transparency within Ford. If any of the managers were lying, what good would come of it? Ford was a sinking ship as it was. They had nothing to gain by lying. Therefore, Mulally demanded honesty out of his lieutenants. And Mulally got honesty out of them by embodying it himself. It is always a best practice to be that which you desire to see in others.