To have potential, our future leaders must be curious

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“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise person knows himself to be a fool” –William Shakespeare

Shakespeare has been prophetic on many things, but Dunning and Kruger take this idea one step further, suggesting that the less competent we are in a given area, the more likely we are to unknowingly exaggerate our own competence. The keyword here is “unknowingly.” Those affected aren’t aware that they’re overestimating their own ability. In David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s original studies (1), people who scored the lowest on tests of logical reasoning, grammar, and sense of humour had the most inflated opinions of their skills. On average, they believed they did better than 62% of their peers, but in reality outperformed only 12% of them.

The other great irony attached to this is that the more senior people become in an organisation,the more they are prone to the Dunning-Kruger effect!

In his 2019 book ‘Rebel Ideas’ (2), Matthew Syed speaks about the equally powerful concept of Growth Mindset (originally popularised by Carol Dweck). As Syed points out:

“Progress is not about proclaiming how much you know, but finding out what you  don’t  know.  It  is  about  finding  weaknesses  quickly  so  that  they  can  be turned  into  strengths...It  is  about  a  mindset  that  is  expansive –none  of  us have all the answers, so let’s discover new ideas...This is sometimes called the growth mindset”.

Matthew  Syed  recently  cited Satya  Nadella,  Microsoft  CEO,  as  a  perfect example of someone creating “a growth mindset at an organisational level”. Nadella  has  generated  more than $250 billion since  taking the role in  2014 and puts his success down to creating a learning culture, inspiring employees to embrace a “learn-it-all” curiosity as opposed to a “know-it-all” mindset.

This ties in completely with research we conducted earlier this year into the Future of Leadership. We identified 3 key themes: the need for purpose, the need for authenticity and the need for awareness. Awareness describes the need for leaders to become experts in not knowing and therefore:

  • Be  comfortable  operating  in  ambiguity  and  outside  of  their  comfort zone;  letting  go  of  the  need  to  feel  in  complete  control  and  be  the pinnacle of expertise.
  • Have strong self-awareness of personal knowledge and experience gaps,  and   being  keen   to  learn  and  continually  seekout   new knowledge. ‘The moment a leader thinks they know it all, they need to go to their pension.’
  • To balance their knowledge gaps, it’s essential to know who the best person  is  to  make  a  decision –who  has  the  knowledge?  Leverage their expertise and bring them into the conversation or enable them to make the decision.
  • Be willing to make bolder decisions with less certainty. However, to ensure they don’t regret it, they need to be highly strategic, keeping aware of trends and likely impacts of their decision. This means being highly  cognitively  capable  to  make  connections  between  concepts they don’t understand fully.

This  brings  me  on  to  my  personal  number  one  leadership  quality  which  is curiosity –something we all naturally have as children but which we dilute or gets hidden as we get older and want to be seen as being smart and clever. What  we  need in  order to  find  a  way  forward  is  brilliantly  articulated  by Margaret  Heffernan,  who  concluded  her  2020  book  by  pointing  out  that  we need leaders who can:

“Approach the future with fervent curiosity, not with an ideology or itinerary but with  a  methodology  that  progresses  with  questions.  What  do  we  need  to know? What do we need to be now? What must we preserve at all costs? Rich futures are mapped by those with the energy to convene, the passion to learn from  the  widest  variety  of  human  imagination,  paying  attention,  changing course, discovering and inventing what the world demands of us all” (3).

So much of our work is about helping leaders increase their curiosity and see their identity as Smart Learners and not just Smart Experts. We draw on Ed Hess’s work on building a Learning Organisation (4) as a source of inspiration for our leadership development workshops with teams and individuals, helping them tothink about:

“I’m defined not by what I know or how much I know, but by the quality of my thinking, listening, relating, and collaborating.”

If  you  focus  on  those  qualities  of  listening,  relating  and  collaborating,  it  will change how you engage in every conversation with people inside and outside of your  organisation. The  insights you gain from  being more curious will  be endless.


  1. Kruger, J. & Dunning, D.(1999). Unskilled and unaware of it:how difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.
  2. Syed, M. (2019). Rebel ideas: The power of diverse thinking.Hachette, UK.
  3. Heffernan, M. (2020). Unchartered: How to map the future.Simon & Schuster, UK.
  4. Hess, E.D. (2020). Hyper-learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change.Berrett-Koehler Publisher, New York

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