Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Importance of Being Curious: A Leader's Real Best Friend

Personality specialists have long touted “openness” as one of the healthiest traits for surviving and thriving in our complex, chaotic world. Economists and urban planners note that organizations and city-regions with “openness personalities” have a better chance at prosperity than those which are not. Alan Greenspan, retired Chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, characterizes the ability or talent as “being curious” versus “incurious”. Great historical leaders speak of “learning coming upon them” in order to understand what to do. Down through the ages, “being curious” has proven to be an important asset.

Alan Greenspan found Bill Clinton the most curious and successful President at managing the economy of the six under which he served during his tenure as the Fed Chair. In his book, The Age of Turbulence, he described Clinton as “fully engaged”, “an information hound” and a person who “asked a lot of smart questions”. He was also a “risk-taker” with good judgment. On the other hand, Greenspan’s most “incurious” President was George W. Bush. In his opinion, he was fixed in his beliefs and consequently was not open to exploring. While Clinton generated significant increases in new jobs, wrestled unemployment and the deficit down and improved the competitiveness of the United States, George W. Bush did the opposite. Incuriosity has its costs in every sense of the word.

Looking back to historical greats such as Churchill and Gandhi, we find a similar theme. As described in Arthur Herman’s Gandhi and Churchill, in the winter of 1896, after satisfying his fascination with becoming a “crack” polo player, Churchill set off on a crash reading program. He also traveled widely, particularly in India, to learn about that country’s challenges through his own eyes. Behind his curiosity was a belief that “large ideas would triumph over small ideas; that modern progress really would dispel prejudice and barbarism; and that human will and purpose such as his own would overcome every challenge.”

As Churchill grew as a leader so too did Gandhi. Like Churchill, he experienced many twists and turns. But always, he was “listening and learning”. In today’s terms, we would call Gandhi a “new age” person, drawn to the latest trends and ideas. Gandhi also believed strongly in grassroots knowledge—traveling around the country to see and experience the lives and struggles of ordinary folks.

While the curiosity of these leaders---Clinton, Churchill and Gandhi---did not always lead them directly to success, on the whole, their respective records stand the test of time. The least we can conclude is that “being curious” is a much better route to leadership and management success than “being incurious”. John Camillus in his May 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Strategy as a wicked problem, implies that today’s “wicked” problems which have innumerable causes, are tough to describe and don’t have a right answer, cannot be solved without curiosity and openness. All leaders and managers take note.

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