Real Leaders Don’t Know

Jan 31, 2018 | Leadership

Curiosity is the next big topic of business says Zander Lurie, SurveyMonkey CEO. Lurie asserts in this LinkedIn article that, “curiosity will determine which firms will thrive and which ones will stumble.”

Curiosity had, since the Enlightenment, been a central part of examining the human condition. I say “had” because the role of curiosity in culture has a checkered past. Lurie may be able to suggest curiosity as the next big thing because, of late, it is in hiatus.

The headwaters of modern thought are often credited as starting with philosophers like Socrates, yet he was convicted and put to death on charges that included strains of inquisitiveness. His illicit act then was being, “an evildoer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven.” In other words, Socrates was found guilty and condemned to death due to his curiosity about the world.

Curiosity was described by the famed eighteenth century essayist, Samuel Johnson, as a “thirst of the soul.” Curiosity seems such a normal, intrinsic part of life to us now that it may seem odd that it is only relatively recently that it has become regarded as a value or, at least, as having value as opposed to being a vice. Indeed, Johnson’s description was more cautionary than aspirational, and he went on to declare that curiosity, “inflames and torments us,” it being the case that, “The gratification of curiosity rather frees us from uneasiness than confers pleasure; we are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction.” 

Famed philosopher, Immanuel Kant declared: “‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” Kant exhorted us: “Dare to know!”

Yet we fail to be daring. In his 2015 ICAN Leadership Exchange 7x7x7 presentation outlining three things great leaders say, talent and culture expert Jason Lauritsen advises that one of those phrases is, “I don’t know.”  Lauritsen observes that, “As leaders it’s really tempting to think that our job is to have all the answers.” People turn to you expecting an answer and you begin to offer one, because “People seem to want that from you.”

Why do we want others to provide the answers. Why don’t we dare? The reasons lie in our anxieties around uncertainty, dumb conformity in contemporary culture, the commercialization of our attention, and a diminution of marvel and wonder. As Brené Brown pointed out in her book, Daring Greatly, “Most people and most organizations can’t stand the uncertainty and the risk of real innovation. Learning and creativity are inherently vulnerable. There’s never enough certainty. People want guarantees.”

A hard part of being a leader is to oblige us to confront ourselves, to face our challenges, and in so doing, bring forth our best selves. Great leaders allow the talent and creativity in others to emerge by inviting us to step forward and to be empowered to explore.

“It’s only when we put our ideas out into the world, that we really start to understand their strengths and weaknesses,” observes creativity expert Tim Brown of IDEO. This participatory role of ideation in business requires an encouragement of curiosity within the organization culture and its people. Moreover, it requires a sincere interest in the opinions, thoughts and reactions of the audience. That interest necessitates a mutual openness and sense of shared purpose. It requires openness and vulnerability. It demands leadership.

Answers inherently constrain. They place rules and borders around our knowledge or experience, and control our response to the given circumstance. They represent an end point or a closed door. There is an insidious comfort in this. The irony of answers is that they frequently spawn more questions in a perpetual cycle of movement towards discovery. Scientists and sociologists, philosophers and poets alike recognize value in the companion to answers, which are the questions. Answers are the lesser partner to their questions. The renowned community consultant, Peter Block, observes that “Questions are more transformative than answers… they are the means by which we are all confronted with our freedom.”

Curiosity is that mobilizing force that moves us towards the peripheries of our environment, where new terrain for our lives can be mapped and where discoveries are to be made.

Forgive me paraphrasing the spirit of Star Trek, though it echoes the thoughts of imaginative greats such as Francis Bacon in the 1600s. The next great leader will be the one that captains the organizational ship by leading a merry, inquisitive crew into a voyage of discovery, not the one that tells us to look no further, that I know all.

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