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Curiosity and Leadership

| July 22, 2014

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, Curiosity and Leadership, was written by Sarah Miller as a Leadership Reflection for the CIC X Leaders Program cohort.  Sara is Faculty Engagement Service Leader in the Division of Information Technology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Curosity lives where learning and motivation intersect. 

What does curiosity have to do with leadership? Everything, I would argue. I see it as the connective tissue that links the topics of the IT Leaders Program:

  • Strategic perspectives? You have to be interested in the big picture and engage in the political landscape.
  • Your own development plan? You need to be concerned about your future and how others are investing in you.
  • Peer coaching? It requires substantial engagement to see understanding and empathy.
  • Learning the culture and landscape in higher education and understanding your unit’s role in it? Influencing and managing change? Emotional intelligence? Building a repertoire of improvisational skills? Motivating staff and colleagues? Growing a diverse leadership? Leading up?

Every one of these requires us to be curious, to be interested enough to learn more and take action. Independent of which of the actual leadership skills and strategies we carry forward in our work, curiosity is the intrinsic quality that allows us to keep moving forward or get back on track. Julie Winkle Giulioni argued last year on SmartBlog on Leadership that curiosity is “the new black”: It will “always be in style” when it comes leadership. She writes:

Are you looking for a skill that’s always in style, goes with anything and makes a bold statement wherever it goes? Look no further; simply consider curiosity.

Depending upon whom you ask, curiosity is defined as a competency, skill, quality, or emotion. It’s the capacity to demonstrate keen interest, an inquisitiveness spirit, an eager drive to understand, and an appetite for experimentation.

No matter how you define it, there’s a growing agreement that curiosity is a vital (and too frequently missing) ingredient in today’s workplace. There’s also agreement that it’s gaining attention and a prominent seat at the leadership table.

Leadership is all about being interested: Investing your intellectual energies in seeking understanding, in learning more about the situation, the context, the people and their own interests. It affords us the motivation to invest our time and effort into the big picture, and into the people around us. It allows us simultaneously to be in service and to be intellectually engaged.

The theme of “gaining interest”has come to play in my life tremendously in the past few months. After more than a decade of building and leading one faculty-development program at a time (examples here, here, and here), I started (on April 1) a new job called “Faculty Engagement Service Leader”at UW-Madison DoIT Academic Technology. My primary responsibility, as the title conveys, is to lead a service area, which is called “Faculty Engagement.” So not only is it my job to

  1. lead a brand-new service area, which requires me to enlist all the curiosity and interest and engagement I referred to above, it’s also my job to lead and
  2. afford this opportunity for the nine staff that comprise the Faculty Engagement Team as we together build a new service area that, in turn,
  3. “engages” the faculty at UW-Madison around teaching and learning and technology and
  4. enlists campus partners in this work as we
  5. align with campus needs and strategic priorities.

As we move into these first 100 days of developing an identity and mission, you can see that the theme of engagement is inescapable: My focus is almost entirely driven by the intersection of leadership and curiosity. Most days, I am learning so much that I feel like I am drinking from a firehose. Other days, I’m barely swimming. What carries me through is curiosity. I am interested, I am passionate about this work, and I care. And each day, I connect it back to my role as a leader. I have to; I want to.

When we bring interest to the table, we ask the others to as well. It sends the message that we care, and that we are going to do the best work we can together. Ingenuity, creativity, innovation, inspiration — all these come from curiosity, from being interested. It’s our job as leaders to preserve this ethic for us, for the people around us, for our work.

By gaining interest as leaders, we all win.

Author’s Postscript: Image from N2Growth Blog. Did you notice that it’s a monkey?

So, I urge you to loosen up and be curious about everything you do as a leader.  Ask questions of yourself and others to give yourself perspectives that go beyond those you have usually limited yourself to.  I think that you will be surprised at what you learn.

.  .  .    jim