Successful leaders are curious about their business and the people who work for/with them. This sort of curiosity is an imperative for a leader because he/she has to both accomplish the task at hand and the “care/feeding” of the team. To put it more succinctly, the leader needs to know what’s going on.
There’s a scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where alien general Sarris (Robin Tobin) is interrogating the human starship captain/actor Commander Peter Taggart/Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) that is illustrative of this principle. Sarris asks Commander Taggart/Nesmith repeatedly about the workings of a particular artifact on board the ship, and is incredulous when “the commander” says he doesn’t know. “A captain knows every weld, every rivet in his ship,” says Sarris.
None of us is very likely to be matching wits with an alien general, but the point for us is that the “commander” needs to understand how the organization works down to the “rivets and bolts.” This means understanding who does what to whom, the stakeholders, customers, and teammates who produce whatever it is the organization produces.
The leader does this for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not possible to diagnose problems if the leader doesn’t know how the process works. Without that sort of detailed knowledge, it might not even be possible to know if there’s even a problem! There’s certainly not much hope for making process improvements. Second, it’s much harder to look after the people if the leader didn’t understand the details of the organization and process. A curious leader who knows their people will know when there’s something amiss with an employee. They’ll notice when production drops off before it becomes a crisis.
There are some barriers to a curious leader, however.
The first barrier is the “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality. This mentality positively breeds a lack curiosity. Everyone is comfortable, no one attempts to improve things, no one notices inefficiency or wasted effort. “This is how we’ve sideways done it” is a recipe for organizational extinction.
The second barrier pertains mostly to senior executives and occurs when the staff and direct reports protect the executive from bad news. If the executive isn’t sufficiently curious to seek out bad news, or to go and see the operation for themselves, he/she can be blindsided with catastrophic news. As the saying goes, ”bad news doesn’t get better with age.”
Perhaps the best reason for a leader to be curious is the effect it has on the team. If the leader is curious and engaged, asking “why ” a lot, that behavior will become party of the organizational culture. It will generate engaged employees, it will foster a culture of continuous improvement, and it will create an environment that improves everyone’s job satisfaction. “Curiosity” is one of the best ways to ensure organizational success.
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, and GeneralLeadership.com.