In praise of the incurably curious leader (MIT Sloan)
by Douglas A Ready
Constant curiosity is essential to navigating leadership in a changing world.
Companies don’t become great by themselves or by accident. They are nurtured over time by great leaders and their teams. Alan Mulally, the iconic former CEO of Ford Motor Co., is often considered to be the person who saved the struggling automaker. Mulally would be the first to tell you that this label is pure nonsense. Larry Fink, the cofounder and CEO of BlackRock, a technology-driven financial platform that is the world’s largest asset management firm, is similarly credited with being one of the world’s financial geniuses. Fink too would scoff at the notion. While these CEOs successfully led very different companies and have very different personalities, they do share one particular behavior that defines who they are as leaders: They are both incurably curious.
Having worked with Fink and his leadership team on refining their talent strategy, I would often hear Fink describe himself as a perpetual student who always asked questions and demanded the same from his team. When Mulally joined Ford to take on one of the largest corporate transformations in history, he didn’t start by cutting costs or people; he started by asking his team why people weren’t buying Fords anymore. He wanted to better understand the root cause of the problem and not focus on offering temporary fixes.
There is a growing recognition among leaders that curiosity is essential to navigating a continuously changing world. This key finding has emerged from an exciting new research project, the Future of Leadership in the Digital Economy, that MIT Sloan Management Review and Cognizant are conducting. As the guest editor for this program, I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with C-suite executives from around the world. In these interviews, curiosity was mentioned over and over again as a critically important leader behavior. “Leaders need to understand and interpret the massive amounts of data that are coming at them every minute of every day and be able to cut through the noise,” says Dan Shapero, vice president of global solutions and head of sales for LinkedIn. “We have to be able to ask questions that focus on what this all means for our business, our customers, and our teams.
This puts a premium on having people who are driven by a sense of curiosity.” David Schmittlein, the dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, stressed this point in an interview I conducted with him. “The world is changing so fast and in so many ways that we need leaders who are equally curious about how to create customer value as they are about creating social value as an enterprise.”In addition to these executive interviews, our team also surveyed more than 4,000 executives and managers in companies from around the world. We asked specifically about whether curiosity would continue to be a valuable leadership behavior. We were pleasantly surprised to find that curiosity was considered to be as enduring a leadership behavior or trait as trust and integrity.
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