The Curious Leader: Ask, Listen, Transform

min read

Effective leaders seek to learn their staff as individuals, respect their strengths, and help them do their best work.

Group working at conference table
Credit: / Shutterstock © 2018

Leadership…is it something you do, strive for, achieve, or a part of who you are? Simply, at its core, leadership is a collection of qualities that one possesses and uses to aid in the advancement of a team or organization.

In a working environment where, according to the Conference Board, 53% of Americans are unhappy at work, and where global studies report that "lack of appreciation" is a factor for 79% of workers who leave jobs, it stands to reason that leadership has a tremendous impact on employees. So, what do you do about it?

This is where the concept of curious inquiry comes into play. When used while leading people, it can completely change how work gets done, the quality of outputs, and the engagement and morale of a team.

According to leadership expert John Maxwell, "The measure of a great teacher isn't what he or she knows; it's what the student knows." For leaders, this translates to how much you are able to maximize the talents of your team and of others who are impacted by your guidance, rather than how much you know or are able to personally accomplish.

Think back to the last conversation you had with a member of your team. Did the conversation meet your expectations? If so, think about why. Is it that everything was accomplished that you intended, or because your staff walked away feeling confident about next steps to meet shared goals? Did you focus on the individual and opportunities to remove barriers, or on the tasks that needed to be completed? Overall, were you asking questions and listening more than fixing and telling?

Author Simon Sinek said, "Listening is active. At its basic level, it's about focus and paying attention." What does this look like in action? To make the connection, there are three questions that you as a leader can ask yourself as you engage with your team to assess your commitment to remaining curious.

  1. Do I value the perspective of my team or the person(s) in this conversation?
  2. Am I entering this conversation with an open mind?
  3. If an alternative idea to my own is presented, am I willing to explore?

If the answer to the first question is "no," answering "yes" to the remaining two questions will be an uphill struggle. Part of remaining curious is surrounding yourself with those who pique interest, solidify trust, and deliver on shared vision.

The opportunity to develop and transform your interactions with your staff lies in your ability to communicate effectively while empowering each of them to operate in their strengths. This translates to sharing a goal or outcome and providing the space for your staff to creatively work toward that goal. It looks like learning their interests and then assigning projects that are of interest and also provide a challenge for growth. It's also hearing what's not being said to understand what you may need to do to support forward progress. Transformation in this sense is fostered through being of service to your staff.

No matter your definition of leadership, one thing is for sure. Investing in the people on your team beyond what they contribute to achieve goals is an impactful decision. "Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person—not just an employee—are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled," said businesswoman Anne Mulcahy. It's not just about the work they do or produce but also includes who they are and what they value.

The next time the chance presents itself with your team or others, take a moment and ask yourself, "If I ask more than I tell, how much of an impact will that make?" The answer may just transform the outcome of the conversation, interaction, and long-term relationship.

Shana Campbell is Manager of Professional Learning at EDUCAUSE.

© 2018 Shana Campbell. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.