In Praise of the Incurably Curious Leader

I don’t know where curiosity comes from, but if you could bottle it, I’d buy it. It is so valuable, when things are changing so quickly, to have people on your team who are trying every day to better understand the world around them.

— Dan Shapero, Vice President, Global Solutions, LinkedIn

Companies don’t become great by themselves or by accident. They are nurtured over time by great leaders and their teams. Alan Mulally, the iconic former CEO of Ford Motor Co., is often considered to be the person who saved the struggling automaker. Mulally would be the first to tell you that this label is pure nonsense. Larry Fink, the cofounder and CEO of BlackRock, a technology-driven financial platform that is the world’s largest asset management firm, is similarly credited with being one of the world’s financial geniuses. Fink too would scoff at the notion. While these CEOs successfully led very different companies and have very different personalities, they do share one particular behavior that defines who they are as leaders: They are both incurably curious.

Having worked with Fink and his leadership team on refining their talent strategy, I would often hear Fink describe himself as a perpetual student who always asked questions and demanded the same from his team. When Mulally joined Ford to take on one of the largest corporate transformations in history, he didn’t start by cutting costs or people; he started by asking his team why people weren’t buying Fords anymore. He wanted to better understand the root cause of the problem and not focus on offering temporary fixes.

There is a growing recognition among leaders that curiosity is essential to navigating a continuously changing world. This key finding has emerged from an exciting new research project, the Future of Leadership in the Digital Economy, that MIT Sloan Management Review and Cognizant are conducting. As the guest editor for this program, I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with C-suite executives from around the world. In these interviews, curiosity was mentioned over and over again as a critically important leader behavior. “Leaders need to understand and interpret the massive amounts of data that are coming at them every minute of every day and be able to cut through the noise,” says Dan Shapero, vice president of global solutions and head of sales for LinkedIn. “We have to be able to ask questions that focus on what this all means for our business, our customers, and our teams. This puts a premium on having people who are driven by a sense of curiosity.”

David Schmittlein, the dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, stressed this point in an interview I conducted with him. “The world is changing so fast and in so many ways that we need leaders who are equally curious about how to create customer value as they are about creating social value as an enterprise.”

In addition to these executive interviews, our team also surveyed more than 4,000 executives and managers in companies from around the world. We asked specifically about whether curiosity would continue to be a valuable leadership behavior. We were pleasantly surprised to find that curiosity was considered to be as enduring a leadership behavior or trait as trust and integrity.

Developing Curious Leaders

Several years ago, I co-led a study that sought to better understand what qualities individuals in companies possessed that led them to be labeled as “high-potential talent.” The study led to a popular June 2010 Harvard Business Review article called “Are You a High Potential?” that I coauthored with my research study partners, Linda Hill at Harvard Business School and Jay Conger at Claremont McKenna College. We studied more than 40 companies and found that those individuals designated as high potentials varied in their qualities, but one of the qualities they all shared was what we called a catalytic learning capability. They were boundlessly curious and turned that curiosity into productive outcomes for their companies.

Being curious, Schmittlein says, is something that can be learned, “Recent research shows that things we once thought were traits, such as empathy and curiosity, baked into our DNA are skills that can be learned. We can change well into adulthood, but we must be intentional about it.”

If we say that curiosity is a behavior that can be learned and not an embedded trait, what can practicing managers do to exercise the curiosity muscle? I’m not about to suggest that you search for and enroll in a curiosity course. Some things are better learned than taught. You can help someone learn to be more curious by modeling the behavior. Fink’s self-proclaimed perpetual-student label signals to his team that he values curiosity. You can encourage others to value it, too. LinkedIn’s Shapero mentioned to me that he believes one of the most valuable activities you can do with your kids every day is ask them: “What important questions did you ask today?” Perhaps they are simple things and little gestures, but they’ll add up to become a part of your leadership narrative.

Curiosity is about searching for new possibilities. It’s about reimagining business models and exploring new ways of working. It’s about looking for creative approaches to solving the most pressing problems we face, not only as companies but also as communities. It’s about always asking why and why not, and not accepting things the way they are or have always been. It’s about having the courage to fail and not being afraid of the word failure. These leaders turn that entire notion of fearing failure on its head and build excitement in their organizations about being perpetual students — always searching for a better way forward. That is why curiosity is an enduring leader behavior and why this blog is in praise of the incurably curious.

By Douglas A. Ready . Douglas A. Ready (@doug_ready) is a senior lecturer in organizational effectiveness at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the founder and CEO of the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, and an MIT Sloan Management Review guest editor.