By Jason E. Lane, Professor & Dean, School of Education, Founding Executive Director, Strategic, Academic, and Innovative Leadership (SAIL) Institute, State University of New York at Albany
Curiosity drives learning. Indeed, curiosity is what brought many of us to work in higher education. We’re trained to be curious – at least within certain domains. Even Albert Einstein revealed that “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted...I am only very, very curious.”
Yet for many of us, it is not uncommon to feel constrained in our curiosity as we take up leadership roles. Fear of failure, lack of training, reticence to challenge the norm, intolerance to ambiguity or simply forgetting the power of curiosity can leave leaders limited in their ability to deal with complex problems.
When we do not push beyond our limits and fail to foster curiosity as a leader, we often miss out on the most valuable opportunities that can move us, our teams, our students, and our institutions ahead. For example, many mid-career and senior leaders in higher education began their leadership journey during periods of seemingly ever expanding domestic and international enrollments. Those conditions allowed for many institutions to manage through problems by enrolling more students and/or raising tuition. Today, many colleges and universities are facing significantly declining revenue streams, fewer enrollments, increased international competition, and rapidly shifting student interests. Looking forward, institutions that thrive, not just survive, will require leaders who are willing to rethink how they work, teach, and engage. This will mean being willing to take hard looks at data, question standard operations, take risks on new ideas, be willing to tolerate failed experiments – essentially being curious (and a bit courageous).
When we ask a group of people to describe good leaders, we typically hear descriptors such as charismatic, visionary, excellent communicator, good listener and decisive. Rarely is the word “curious” included in the list. Yet, I would argue that curiosity is among the most important skill sets for leaders who are focused on transformation. And, in the era of pandemic, what higher education institutions are looking for is transformation.
Take Paul LeBlanc, the transformational president at Southern New Hampshire University, for example. LeBlanc transformed a small struggling vocationally oriented university into one of the nation’s largest universities and has been continually ranked among the most innovative higher education institutions in the country and one of the best places to work. Why? Because LeBlanc is curious. He is curious about how to serve students better… curious about roadblocks to student success…. curious about what is possible.
Our performance can be hampered by mental prisons that constrain our thinking and limit our options. However, curiosity can be a powerful tool to break out of these mental prisons to examine new opportunities and transform how we operate. Roger Bannister is an excellent example. Bannister was recorded as the first human to have broken the 4-minute mile mark. Prior to Bannisters astonishing run, it was widely believed that the human body was physically incapable of running a mile in less than 4 minutes. And yet, in 1954 Bannister did it. Within months following his record-breaking run, more than a dozen other athletes did the same, and thousands have since then. What Bannister proved was that it was mental barriers impeding progress, not physical ones. Because runners believed they could not do it; they did not. Bannister was curious about the possibilities and opened himself up to believe a different outcome was achievable.
So, how do you cultivate curiosity as a leader?
1. Expand Your Orbit
Curiosity means that we need to be willing to look beyond what we currently know and learn from. It is easy to become trapped in an echo chamber where our assumptions and beliefs are reinforced and not challenged – we see it in politics all the time and it can be true for those leading colleges and universities as well. One way to foster curiosity is to purposefully broaden what you read and invite more voices into your orbit. As a scholar, some of my most important breakthroughs have come from my working across the disciplines of organizational theory, political science, and education – it led me to rethink how we analyze organizational dynamics within higher education. As a leader, I’m constantly reading about advances in business, government, and health care. In fact, reading about patient-centered health care has led me to re-orient my approach to student success to be student-centered rather than institution-centered. If we keep reading and listening to the same things, we’ll never see what might be possible.
Leader Tip: Once a month, make a conscience effort to read at least one article outside of what you typically read and invite one person, you don’t normally engage with, for coffee (or a virtual chat).
2. Be Open to New Possibilities
It is, however, more than simply expanding your reading and listening – you have to be open to learning from others and reconsider how you have viewed the world. I have often seen leaders get trapped into believing they must have all the answers and are unwilling to accept they can learn something new from others. The best leaders know that surrounding themselves with smart, inquisitive, and honest people can help them be better leaders because they help foster curiosity and learning in the leader. To benefit though, you must be willing to, at least temporarily, suspend what you think you know to be true and be open to the possibility of expanding your worldview, approaching problems from different angles, and integrating information from others to evolve or develop new solutions. Leaders sometimes limit their thinking based on old experiences and tired tropes. What you see today can and should be assessed through a fresh lens so that you may engage new approaches to old problems.
Leader Tip: When reading or listening, invoke the question “what if” often to consider how what you are reading, or learning might change how you engage your work.
3. Increase your Self-Acceptance (suspend judgment)
Curiosity allows for considering what is possible. Judgment is one of the quickest ways to squash curiosity. It, instead, limits what is possible. Self-judgment (or judgement of others) leads one to quickly point out what is wrong. This type of behavior has two implications. It is known to contribute to anxiety, anger, and depression. It can also prevent us from trying something new because it clouds our view of ourselves and new opportunities. We shut down possibilities out of fear of being judged by others. Such self-judgment can also spill over into how we interact with others and lead groups to become avoidant of change. How does a curious leader work to reduce self-judgment and judgment of others and increase their self-acceptance? First, spend time seeking to recognize when the judgment is occurring and how it manifests. Second, work to become comfortable with things you cannot change. Lastly, focus on your strengths, celebrate your successes, and think positively. This is not always a quick process, but it is possible to reorient your thinking from being immediately critical and judgmental, to being positive and accepting. Curiosity thrives when one is comfortable with themselves and open to new possibilities.
Leader Tip: Schedule time to reflect and identify self-judgment and negative self-talk. Then actively practice reframing those thoughts to be more positive and focused on what is possible.
4. Engage in Experimentation
Exploring curiosity means being open to trying something new – even if you are not sure if it will be successful. Experimentation requires a basic level of comfort with ambiguity, risk taking, and failure.
Curiosity means that you are looking for something new or different – something that perhaps has never been considered before. This can be risky as it means you are opening yourself up for potential failure. For some of us, we’ve been trained in experimentation via our research background; however, we rarely teach this as a skill for leadership. Approaching something new as an experiment can shift how we view the activity. An experiment means that we are not attached to needing a “successful” outcome, instead it is an opportunity to do something differently with an active interest in learning from what works and what doesn’t.
Leader Tip: Engage in intentional experimentation by identifying one aspect of your personal or professional life and changing one thing about it to see what works and what doesn’t. Keep tweaking to see how it affects the outcome.
5. Learn to Fail Forward
Great leaders are continuously looking for how to realize new opportunities and turn the improbable into the possible. This means that they are continuously asking questions, exploring new options, and experimenting with possibilities. It also means that they have developed a level of comfort with failure that allows them to see failure as a learning opportunity not as a defeat. As John Dewey once noted, "Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes." If an idea doesn’t work, analyze it to see why and then try something else. Some might see this as not achieving success; curious leaders simply see it as learning. They also don’t settle if something works. That is, simply because they found a solution to the problem does not mean they stop looking for an even better solution. This approach is critical for curiosity to thrive. If we seek to avoid failure, we will avoid taking chances. If we become complacent with what works, we’ll never explore what might be better.
Leader Tip: Next time a situation does not work out as you hoped, develop a plan to analyze why and see what you can learn from it that can be useful for moving forward.
For leaders, curiosity can be a powerful tool; but it has to be careful cultivated. For some, curiosity will come easily and may be a natural thought process. For others, it will require a fundamental shift in how you approach problems starting with your internal thought processes. For all, it does necessitate a continual sense of self-awareness of how we view problems, explore possibilities, experiment with change, and learn from failure. Once a leader learns to foster curiosity in themselves, then can then begin to work on fostering it within their team.
Jason E. Lane, Professor & Dean, School of Education, Founding Executive Director, Strategic, Academic, and Innovative Leadership (SAIL) Institute, State University of New York at Albany