Curiosity is one of the most crucial yet least appreciated leadership traits. When nurtured, it can become an expansive wellspring for insight and innovation – both critical to overcome today’s complex threats and seize tomorrow’s opportunities. Think about leaders who have inspired you. Chances are they were curious people who asked great questions.
First, let’s define curiosity: it means wanting to know why things happen or exist. And that’s an important distinction from just being interested in something – we’re not satisfied until we find answers. Because of that personal quality, curious people naturally ask questions. In fact, in our practice at McKinsey, we’ve found that when there’s a real curiosity gap – when leaders sincerely want to understand something – they ask broad, open-ended questions with the intention of understanding not only the situation but also exploring what could be possible for their organization in light of an issue or idea.
Second, curiosity is beneficial because it’s disruptive. When we’re curious, we challenge assumptions and encourage others to do the same. While that’s sometimes seen as risky or threatening – e.g., “what if your ideas don’t work?” – It galvanizes creative thinking and gives organizations a leg up on stagnation and complacency.
Third, curiosity can help you deal with uncertainty. When leaders are interested in knowing why things happen, they’re naturally open to change – that is, when the situation warrants it. While many people think leaders crave certainty (ironically limiting their options), genuinely influential leaders recognize that fostering an environment of inquiry and experimentation leads to better decisions and more creative problem-solving.
In fact, in a McKinsey survey of executives from all sectors, we found that curiosity was the most essential quality for effective decision making – even above experience and expertise.
If you want to be an essential leader who makes better decisions, ask lots of interesting questions. But don’t just do it for yourself – while curiosity is certainly not pointless, it doesn’t have the same intrinsic reward as talking about oneself or one’s accomplishments.
Ultimately, don’t forget that you’re asking questions not just because you want to know but also because others will benefit from your discoveries. Finally, realize that there are times when leaders may choose not to answer a question.