Charles Jones June 9 2022

To have potential, our future leaders must be curious

Charles Jones, executive coach, and specialist in leadership development discusses his personal number one leadership quality, curiosity...

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise person knows himself to be a fool” –William Shakespeare

Shakespeare has been prophetic on many things, but Dunning and Kruger take this idea one step further, suggesting that the less competent we are in a given area, the more likely we are to unknowingly exaggerate our own competence. The keyword here is “unknowingly.” Those affected aren’t aware that they’re overestimating their own ability. In David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s original studies (1), people who scored the lowest on tests of logical reasoning, grammar, and sense of humour had the most inflated opinions of their skills. On average, they believed they did better than 62% of their peers, but in reality, outperformed only 12% of them.

The other great irony attached to this is that the more senior people become in an organisation, the more they are prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect!

In his 2019 book ‘Rebel Ideas’ (2), Matthew Syed speaks about the equally powerful concept of Growth Mindset (originally popularised by Carol Dweck). As Syed points out:

“Progress is not about proclaiming how much you know, but finding out what you don’t know.  It is about finding weaknesses  quickly so that they can be turned into strengths...It is about a  mindset that is expansive –none of us have all the answers, so let’s discover new ideas...This is sometimes called the growth mindset”.

Matthew  Syed recently cited Satya  Nadella,  Microsoft  CEO,  as a perfect example of someone creating “a growth mindset at an organisational level”. Nadella has generated more than $250 billion since taking the role in  2014 and puts his success down to creating a learning culture, inspiring employees to embrace a “learn-it-all” curiosity as opposed to a “know-it-all” mindset.

This ties in completely with research we conducted earlier this year into the Future of Leadership. We identified 3 key themes: the need for purpose, the need for authenticity, and the need for awareness. Awareness describes the need for leaders to become experts in not knowing and therefore:

- Be comfortable operating in ambiguity and outside of their comfort zone;  letting go of the need to feel in complete control and be the pinnacle of expertise.

- Have strong self-awareness of personal knowledge and experience gaps, and be keen to learn and continually seek out new knowledge. ‘The moment a leader thinks they know it all, they need to go to their pension.’


- To balance their knowledge gaps, it’s essential to know who the best person is to make a  decision –who has the knowledge? Leverage their expertise and bring them into the conversation or enable them to make the decision.

- Be willing to make bolder decisions with less certainty. However, to ensure they don’t regret it, they need to be highly strategic, keeping aware of trends and likely impacts of their decision. This means being highly cognitively capable to make connections between concepts they don’t understand fully.

This brings me on to my personal number one leadership quality which is curiosity –something we all naturally have as children but which we dilute or get hidden as we get older and want to be seen as being smart and clever. What  we  need in  order to  find  a  way  forward  is  brilliantly  articulated  by Margaret  Heffernan,  who  concluded  her  2020  book  by  pointing  out  that  we need leaders who can:

“Approach the future with fervent curiosity, not with an ideology or itinerary but with a  methodology that progresses with questions.  What do we need to know? What do we need to be now? What must we preserve at all costs? Rich futures are mapped by those with the energy to convene, the passion to learn from the widest variety of human imagination,  paying attention,  changing course, discovering and inventing what the world demands of us all” (3).

So much of our work is about helping leaders increase their curiosity and see their identity as Smart Learners and not just Smart Experts. We draw on Ed Hess’s work on building a Learning Organisation (4) as a source of inspiration for our leadership development workshops with teams and individuals, helping them to think about:

“I’m defined not by what I know or how much I know, but by the quality of my thinking, listening, relating, and collaborating.”

If you focus on those qualities of listening,  relating, and collaborating,  it will change how you engage in every conversation with people inside and outside of your organisation. The insights you gain from being more curious will be endless.

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