Sunday, April 17, 2011

Passionate Curiosity

Close followers of this space know that I admire Adam Bryant's "Corner Office" column that appears every Sunday in the Business section of the Times. Each Sunday, Bryant interviews a CEO of a corporation or the head of a non-profit to find out how they lead. It frequently offers insights into organizational leadership that you don't get anywhere else. Over the past year, I have probably saved four or five of these interviews because they were so good.

Now, not surprisingly, the lessons learned from these interviews have been synthesized in a new book by Bryant called..."The Corner Office." In a piece in the Times today, "Distilling the Wisdom of CEO's," that is adapted from the book, Bryant summarizes the five qualities that all of the leaders he interviewed apparently share. They are: 1) Passionate Curiosity, 2) Battle-Hardened Confidence, 3) Team Smarts, 4) A Simple Mind-Set, and 5) Fearlessness.

All of these strike me as both very important and really quite rare, and when I measure my own rather feeble attempts at leadership against this list, I am dismayed by how much I fall short in pretty much every category. Of course, there is always room to improve and I hope to use Bryant's findings to upgrade my own leadership. But at the risk of distorting what Bryant has to say by singling out only one of these qualities, let's briefly look more closely at Passionate Curiosity.

Implied right from the beginning in Bryant's own treatment of passionate curiosity is that strong leaders are humble people, willing to talk about their mistakes and failures and to learn from them. I am deeply drawn to this attitude, as I am to the next theme that Bryant highlights: the desire of such leaders to know people's stories, to understand what they do and what makes them tick and how they themselves rebound from adversity. Bryant goes on on to say that what especially marks such leaders is their "relentless questioning," their uncompromising commitment to finding out why things happen as they do and how better outcomes can be achieved. Nell Minow affirms that this particular combination of qualities - passion combined with curiosity - results in a person who is "alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more."

Accordingly, Bryant concludes, while top leaders are often said to be worth their salaries for having vast stores of knowledge and insight, they are probably most valuable as incisive questioners who use this capacity to "push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees."

A couple of years ago, Stephen Brookfield and I wrote a book about leadership called "Learning as a Way of Leading" in which we said that one of the key learning tasks of such learning leaders is to develop the ability to ask helpful, energizing, formative questions. It is deeply satisfying to find someone I respect saying the same thing about the leaders he profiles.

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