The Unexpected Quality Every Successful Leader Needs

It’s never hard to find a discussion—in this blog and lots of other places, online and off—of the skills that are required for good leadership. Among the most important is one that surprisingly is rarely mentioned: curiosity, the secret gift of creative people and successful leaders.

Curious people have a beginner’s mind—empty, free, unbiased, and unoccupied with the baggage of trying to be an expert. They’re open to all possibilities and are able to view even the most familiar things from a fresh perspective.

Curious leaders are deep thinkers, great listeners and even better questioners. Here are seven ways to foster your own curiosity:

Embrace what you don’t know. As leaders, we often think we have to serve up all the answers. But the best leaders are comfortable with not knowing. When they don’t know something, they don’t try to fake it. They’re aware of what they don’t know and unafraid to admit it. They’re open to learning new things because they’re free from pretending they already know everything. The best leaders leverage their ignorance to open the door on new knowledge.

Know that everything begins with “why.” Part of my job as a coach is helping people dive deeper into their thinking, and a trick I use with many of my clients is to ask the question Why?— not once or twice, but five or six times in sequence from a single question, going as far as possible into an idea. Asking yourself Why? again and again will challenge you to confront your obstacles, formulate and frame the questions, articulate the issues and go deeper.

Be ready to reframe your thinking. It’s easy in these fast-paced times to feel that you can’t keep up, and from there to become overwhelmed. There’s a certain amount of stability to be gained by sticking to the fundamentals, but eventually the best leaders realize the limits of the lens through which they’ve been viewing the world. From there, they’re ready to construct a whole new frame of reference that will help them face the challenges and opportunities they couldn’t even imagine a few years ago.

Learn to navigate challenges. New challenges are everywhere, and more seem to crop up daily. Navigating change and challenges is a key competency of the best leaders. One helpful mental model consists of asking three questions: Why? What if? and How? Asking Why? helps you understand the challenge. What if? helps you imagine and weigh different solutions, and How? challenges you to take concrete action and maintain accountability. This technique can give you a fresh outlook on problems, challenges and solutions.

Understand that knowledge is becoming obsolete: In an era when information increases exponentially, it’s impossible to retain everything. Effective leaders know what to commit to memory and have the skills to find the rest. And for a curious mind, asking the questions is just as important as finding the answers.

Avoid small-minded questions. If you ask small questions, you’re going to get small ideas that do nothing to advance your thinking. To innovate you have to ask expansive questions. It’s not always easy to do in a business culture where leaders are expected to act as if they know everything and hierarchy is the norm. But newer models emphasizing flexibility, speed and collaborative inquiry are friendlier to the kind of curiosity that asks the big questions.

Step back to move forward. It’s easy to stay caught in a cycle where we’re so focused on our day-to-day issues that we never seem to have time to slow down and really think. Maybe more than any other factor, the pressure of short-term demands shuts out curiosity. That’s why it’s so important that leaders learn to pause and take a couple of steps back. A little distance creates perspective and expands your point of view to take in a bigger picture.

The most important thing a business leader should do today is become the chief question asker. Curiosity leads to creativity, innovation and transformation. The more questions you ask, the more you know and the more effective you will become. And when you take the next step, from asking questions to taking action, that’s where leadership is at its best.

Lead from within: Curiosity is the unexpected quality that makes the difference between a good leader and a great leader.

N A T I O N A L   B E S T S E L L E R


What Gets Between You and Your Greatness

After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR,, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

  1. Michael Lapointe

    08. May, 2018

    Close your eyes and imagine that this was common. Now open your eyes …. um maybe not. “Curiosity killed the cat” is drilled into some of us since childhood. Asking questions in some businesses is met with “Listen to me! I’m the boss!” It’s ‘my-way-or-the-highway’/’father-knows-best’ status quo leadership thinking. This leadership style from the prehistoric era is hard to root out especially when mixed with ego and greed. This sucks the soul out of workers. Leading with curiosity is like taking a breath of fresh mountain air … it really is fulfilling to lead this way. Whenever, I have a chance, I explore with curiosity. This opens up a friendly rapport, a bridge based on curiosity that inspires others in helping you. This leads to trust if the curiosity is genuine.

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  2. Paul Towers

    10. May, 2018

    Such a powerful post/topic and something that I think a lot of people overlook. The power of thought is often inspiring and crucial to overcoming challenges.

    Thanks for writing such a detailed post on the topic. It was a great read.


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  3. Frederick Nightingale

    02. Jun, 2018

    Thanks for the excellent post. All children are born curious. The process of socialization takes that away from nearly all of us. We have to work hard to get back what we were born with.

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  4. Matthew Weeks

    12. Nov, 2018

    This is indeed a vital habit of leaders.

    The cultural scripting of tribes, from families to worship to organizations is often contra to robust curiosity.

    In fact, “the beginner’s mind” as you point out as a fantastic concept for leaders to imbue and celebrate, is often confusing to rank-and-file as well as eventual leaders.

    This is because of the control dynamic inherent in most mature organizations.

    To have the beginner’s mind is accepted when a novice is learning “standard operating procedures” and “the way things are done.” As the novice advances in their knowledge, mastery is rewarded.

    Questioning and curiosity are mostly interpreted as challenges to the ossified structure of mature organizations. As such, they are frequently treated as threats to those “trusted and effective standard operating procedures” and questioning is thus discouraged and even treated with disdain and hostility. Often by leadership, to other leaders.

    It’s a mark of low emotional IQ and fearful, small, foxhole thinking by leaders and it is toxic to an organization’s culture and ability to adjust, thrive and grow.

    We need to celebrate curiosity, even and especially curiosity that spawns crazy ideas, creatively destructive ideas, asks taboo questions and even existential questions about the organization and holds leadership accountable to a no-BS and authentic standard.

    It takes confidence and high emotional IQ, and an awareness of the tendency of a mature organization to close itself off to discoveries and facts and realities that may be inconvenient or difficult to hear or solve.

    And therein resides the challenge to leaders. To be brave and clear and proactive in enabling such curiosity and questioning, to keep everyone at the top of their collective game, even when the information is tough to confront.

    The vitality of questioning and well-intentioned curiosity will define the success of an organization and by extension its leaders.

    Here’s to all of us continuing to have the beginner’s mind and celebrate the practice of curiosity and wonder, and most of all humility in recognizing that the most potent and valuable insight will likely come from a beginner’s mind wandering.

    And that might be a new-hire or a 25 year veteran or anyone in between, if we allow them the permission to ask.

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