Leaders and Curiosity: What Matters Most for CEOs

The importance of curiosity as a leadership trait is a hot topic in many organizations and gets its fair share of attention in influential circles – including in the Harvard Business Review, which has featured it in more than a dozen articles over the past five years. One of them, Why Curiosity Matters, makes a compelling case for the importance of curiosity to leaders and organizational performance.

What Do We Mean by “Curiosity”?

Curiosity is usually described as a general concept and a “good thing”. But there are many different types, as Todd Kashdan and his associates at George Mason University explained in an article in the Journal of Research in Personality (2018). In unpacking the value of curiosity in leaders, it’s useful first to explore a few types and examples of people who demonstrate them.

First, there is social curiosity – having a deep interest in others, their back story, what they do, what they value, and what motivates them. Listen to any interview by Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air and you’ll hear her seemingly insatiable interest in her interviewees.
There is also the curiosity of the thrill seeker – those who crave new adventures, intense experiences, and taking risks that test their limits. Richard Branson’s many air-ballooning exploits begun when he was 37 years old surely qualify.
Next is the curiosity of the obsessed problem solver – the drive to solve challenging and stubborn problems that keep you awake at night. Many entrepreneurs fit this bill. One is Jack Dorsey, who was bothered by the difficulty small merchants had not being able to accept credit cards and created “Square” to make this easy.
Then there are those with a remarkable thirst for learning – people who seek out new knowledge, information, and learning simply because it gives them pleasure. For example, Warren Buffett spends eighty percent of his day reading and Bill Gates is said to read 50 books a year.
CEO Types Defined by Curiosity

What gets lost in this discussion is that curiosity is not so much an ability or personal characteristic but an inclination – an impulse to seek new information and experiences and explore possibilities that is expressed in different ways.

But of the many manifestations of curiosity, there are two that stand out in our leadership assessment work with CEOs and others in senior roles:

The curiosity of the expert leader. These leaders are usually found in the C-suite holding senior-level functional roles – Chief Financial Officer, Chief Legal Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Technology Officer – where being extremely knowledgeable is the primary criterion for success. These leaders are motivated to learn deeply about a subject, specialty or discipline that is relevant to their work, hold themselves to very high standards, and strive to be world-class. Others look to them for answers and advice, and they create followership by being the best in their professions. At its core, the curiosity of expert leaders is intentional, focused and very deep. They demonstrate their curiosity as if they were digging a series of deep intellectual wells where there are always unfolding developments, new areas to explore, and no end to what they can learn.
The curiosity of the visionary leader. These leaders can come from anywhere, but usually are experienced in multiple functions before joining the C-suite. Most are also experts in one or more fields, but their motivation is more toward understanding societal, economic, historical and technological trends, emerging developments inside and outside of their industry, and even philosophical matters. Visionary leaders’ curiosity may have no objective other than learning for its own sake, giving them the opportunity to think deeply about a broad range of issues that may or may not be relevant to what they are doing in the present. This helps them make sense of a complex and ever-changing world and gives them the ability to form insights that can be molded into a compelling statement of mission that can energize and inspire others. In contrast to the Expert leader, their curiosity is broad, wide, and boundaryless.
About Hiring for Curiosity

So which type of curiosity should you look for in the next CEO? The answer, of course, is “it depends.” CEOs and other senior executives are complex and unique individuals, the best of whom are curious in many ways. However, I have a view of what kind of curiosity a CEO of a large and often global organization should have, depending on the situation:

“Expert” CEOs are well-suited to situations where the business is in survival mode, needs to be turned around, or divested of assets that no longer serve it. They need to really know what they are doing, make the tough but necessary decisions swiftly and with confidence, and have other leaders in place to manage the necessary changes and smooth the transition. What enables them to fill this important role is their bias toward a curiosity that is intentional, focused and very deep.
“Visionary” CEOs are well suited to situations where the business is at a juncture where staying the course has been successful in the past, but the potential for disruption, competitive challenges, and venturing into new areas and uncharted waters is imminent. Here, you need a CEO who can grasp the pattern of a looming risk, create a strategy to counter the risk, articulate it in bold and persuasive terms, and mobilize the organization to action. The curiosity of these CEOs – broad, wide, and boundaryless – provides them with insights coming from connecting the dots.
Final Thoughts

I have used “expert” and “visionary” as labels to describe extreme types to make a point: an individual CEO may be a mix of both in terms of capability, but the strength of their inclination toward one or the other will predict how they will perform against the challenges facing their organization.

However, every organization needs a mix of experts as well as people who can “see around corners” and not be blinded by their own areas of expertise. And it’s critical for a CEO to have an inquiring mind – asking questions rather than giving answers, being open to different ideas and perspectives, and seeking to understand ideas that are different rather than to challenge them.

But to find or grow the CEO of the future, where disruption and the need to disrupt will increasingly coexist, organizations should encourage and seek out people whose interests take them beyond the borders of their role, have an insatiable thirst for learning broadly, a propensity to question the way things are, and the drive to search for insights that have the potential to transform their industry.

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