Home » Leadership » Great Leaders are Curious Leaders

Great Leaders are Curious Leaders

December 12, 2023


No single trait defines a great leader; however, one trait most great leaders embrace is curiosity. Another important trait is wisdom — and the two traits are inextricably connected. The Greek philosopher Socrates once stated, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” All leaders understand that the business landscape is constantly changing and, in order to succeed, the enterprises they lead must constantly adapt. Since the dawn of the Digital Age, business consultants have insisted that companies must transform into digital enterprises in order to survive and thrive. According to Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill, and her associates, Ann Le Cam, Sunand Menon, and Emily Tedards, “Leaders who set out to reshape their companies to compete in a fast-evolving digital world often come to a daunting realization: To transform their organizations, they must first transform themselves. … 71 percent of 1,500 executives we surveyed in more than 90 countries said that adaptability was the most important leadership quality in these times. … Our survey respondents also ranked creativity, curiosity, and comfort with ambiguity as highly desirable traits.”[1] Eric J. McNulty, Associate Director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, adds, “High-impact leaders are insatiably curious — about themselves, the people who work for and with them, and the world in which they operate and beyond. Inquisitive leaders are effective because building knowledge and wisdom are essential to professional success.”[2]


The Importance of Curiosity


One often sees the term VUCA used to describe today’s business landscape. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. According to organizational consultant Waltraud Gläser, this term was coined in 1985 “by economists and university professors Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus in their book Leaders. The Strategies For Taking Charge.”[3] She goes on to note that the U.S. military eventually adopted the term in its planning efforts. Each of the terms in the acronym (i.e., volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) depicts a specific characteristic of particular environment. Gläser discusses each of those terms:


• Volatility. “Volatility describes the intensity of fluctuation over time.”


• Uncertainty. “Uncertainty describes the unpredictability of events. The more ‘surprises’ the context provides, the more uncertain it is.”


• Complexity. “Complexity is influenced by the number of influencing factors and their interdependence or interaction. The more interdependencies a system contains, the more complex it is.”


• Ambiguity. “Ambiguity describes the [inexactness] of a situation or information. Even if a lot of information is available (in the sense of being secure and predictable), the evaluation of the same can still be ambiguous.”


Rather than moaning about how VUCA conditions make innovation more difficult, INSEAD professor Nathan Furr and entrepreneur Susannah Harmon Furr argue that uncertainty and possibility are “two sides of the same coin.”[4] Business journalist Curt Nickisch, in an introduction to an interview he conducted with the Furrs, writes, “For many of us, uncertainty is nerve-wracking. However, many of our best achievements and meaningful experiences come from a trying time of ambiguity. … By learning to welcome and cope with the gray area, an individual can reach better outcomes.”[5] Curious minds embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.


Tech writer Christopher Watkins asked a couple of executives about the importance of curiosity. Padmasree Warrior, CEO of Fable, insisted, “The biggest skill you need to have these days is curiosity.” Sebastian Thrun, founder and President of Udacity, agreed. He insisted, “[Leaders must] be fearless, be curious, and develop a growth mindset. For those who learn, there is no such thing as failure.” Watkins concludes, “So you need to be curious. But what does this actually mean? Surely we’re all curious about things, right? How then does this broad idea of curiosity become a cultivable and demonstrable skill, a specific driver of success, and a key differentiator between the ones who get the jobs and the ones who don’t?”


Becoming More Curious


Participants in the survey conducted by Hall and her colleagues identified four traits they believed were most critical to success in the Digital Age: Adaptability (71%); Curiosity (48%); Creativity (47%); and Comfort with Ambiguity (43%). Based on their research, Hall and her colleagues concluded, “Leaders will be blindsided if they rely only on their past experience or expertise when making decisions. Even with more data and analytics, executives we talked to said that leaders still need to adopt holistic thinking and stay open to the unexpected. They must learn to stretch their ‘own imagination and creativity’ to envision what the future could be for the company and its stakeholders, anticipate possible scenarios, and prepare to adapt to whatever unfolds.”


Fortunately, leaders are not without tools to help them cope with ambiguity and satisfy their curiosity. Cognitive computing technology was developed to help in these circumstances. The now-defunct Cognitive Computing Consortium explained:


The cognitive computing system offers a synthesis not just of information sources but of influences, contexts, and insights. To do this, systems often need to weigh conflicting evidence and suggest an answer that is ‘best’ rather than ‘right’. Cognitive computing systems make context computable. They identify and extract context features such as hour, location, task, history or profile to present an information set that is appropriate for an individual or for a dependent application engaged in a specific process at a specific time and place. They provide machine-aided serendipity by wading through massive collections of diverse information to find patterns and then apply those patterns to respond to the needs of the moment.”


In other words, cognitive computing technologies help leaders deal with ambiguity. And that’s important. Hall and her colleagues explain, “Leaders must be comfortable moving forward with ambiguous and incomplete information about what’s happening around them and the potential impact of their actions. They must learn to see their decisions and actions as working hypotheses that they can only validate by collecting feedback on their impact as expeditiously as possible.” One way they can do that is to engage in “what if” exercises during which numerous scenarios are explored. At the height the pandemic, Enterra Solutions® developed the Enterra Global Insights and Decision Superiority System™ (EGIDS™) so that clients could explore hundreds of scenarios at computer speed. EGIDS is powered by the Enterra Autonomous Decision Science™ (ADS®) platform. ADS technology can autonomously analyze data, generate insights and make subtle, contextually informed, judgment-based decisions quickly, accurately and with limited human intervention, and then learn from the results of those decisions. This capability makes it easier for leaders to embrace ambiguity and move forward with greater confidence.


Concluding Thoughts


McNulty observes, “Naturally curious people ask lots of questions and take time to reflect on the answers.” One man whose life and leadership I greatly admire is the late Dr. Abraham Flexner, first director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Although largely unknown today, when Flexner died in 1959, his obituary was published on the front page of the New York Times. Robertus Henricus “Robbert” Dijkgraaf, a subsequent director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, wrote, “It was Flexner’s lifelong conviction that human curiosity, with the help of serendipity, was the only force strong enough to break through the mental walls that block truly transformative ideas and technologies.”[7] Flexner himself wrote, “Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered.”[8] Today’s “modern thinking” can be augmented by artificial intelligence in ways that Flexner could only dream about — and it makes embracing the challenges of a changing business landscape much easier.


[1] Linda A. Hill, Ann Le Cam, Sunand Menon, and Emily Tedards, “Curiosity, Not Coding: 6 Skills Leaders Need In the Digital Age,” HBS Working Knowledge, 14 February 2022.
[2] Eric J. McNulty, “Ritual Questions Help Inform Effective Leaders,” strategy + business, 22 August 2016.
[3] Waltraud Gläser, “Where does the term ‘VUCA’ come from?” VUCA-World, 9 November 2021.
[4] Curt Nickisch, “The Case for Embracing Uncertainty,” Harvard Business Review, July 2022.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Christopher Watkins, “Grit, Yes, But What About Curiosity?” Udacity, 16 February 2017.
[7] Robbert Dijkgraaf, “The World of Tomorrow,” in The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, pp. 1-48.
[8] Abraham Flexner, “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Harper’s Magazine, June/November 1939.

Related Posts:

Full Logo


One of our team members will reach out shortly and we will help make your business brilliant!