Curious leader graphic

The path to being a curious leader to encourage innovation

What is a curious leader?

Of recent trends in leadership theory, one of my favourites is that of the curious leader (also known as a questioning leader or learning leader).

Curious leaders are those that, rather than seeing themselves as static repositories of wisdom (know-it-alls), they consistently challenge and look to develop their own thinking, try to develop the thinking of others using skilful questioning, and ultimately encourage a more curious, creative organisation.

The ‘curious leader’ theory builds on ‘growth mindset’ (learner mindset) theories and suggests we all have the capacity to choose how we operate and whether we bring a learner or judger mindset to different situations.

Judger MindsetLearner Mindset
Gives answers and directionsAsks questions that they don't already know the answers to
Reactive and automaticResponsive and thoughtful
Know it alreadyValues not knowing
Close mindedOpen minded
Debate (to win)Dialogue (to understand)
Fears differencesValues differences

Being a curious leader that both adopts and encourages in others a learner mindset can lead to better outcomes, more engagement, faster learning, greater creativity, and less pressure and risk on the learner themselves.


The problem, of course, lies in the ‘how to’.

Questioning skills and techniques can be learnt but it is the mindset change that is most difficult. Whilst proponents of the learner mindset argue that we can choose which mindset to operate from in any given moment it really isn’t that easy. To a significant extent, we all judge, contest or simply know already, know better.

The path to being a curious leader

Whilst many leaders may rationally accept the benefits of being a more open and inquisitive, the obstacles to adopting a relaxed, curious mindset are often big and broad:

Self esteem, competence and expertiseMost leaders have reached their higher positions by demonstrating superior competence or expertise in one or more disciplines. They value this expertise and value the fact that others recognise and respect it. They therefore look to draw on and demonstrate this expertise whenever possible.
Arrogance, insecurity and imposter syndromeCurious leaders are competent but humble. Arrogance and insecurity can be flip sides of the same coin but both can lead to 'know it all' tendencies. 'Imposter syndrome' is the common fear amongst high achievers that they will one day be found out not knowing something. This expertise anxiety leads to a reluctance to ask for help or seek alternative viewpoints.
Question reluctanceCurious leaders ask questions that others avoid. Question reluctance is normal but not natural: all parents will be familiar with the unrestrained questioning instinct of children that at some stage gets knocked out of them as continuing questioning leads to criticism, ridicule and embarrassment or frustration. As time goes on, our default becomes not asking.
Bias and assumptionsAs discussed in my earlier blog on unconscious bias, we all like to go with our instincts, allowing our assumptions and biases to fill any areas of ambiguity. Particularly in terms of 'why' questions relating to motivation and others' behaviour, we often think we know the answer. Curious leaders always ask the 'why' question (although the most skilful questioners often use alternatives to the 'why' word due to how it can prompt defensive responses).
Organisational prioritiesAs a leader, your job is to implement as well as formulate strategy, and most of your time (like it or not) is spent on the former. Questions, change and challenges can cause delay and conflict - so often the focus is on disciplined project management, eliminating doubts and differences rather than embracing them. Curious leaders don't have tunnel vision.
Personal stressCurious leaders are relaxed and find the time for broad-ranging conversations. The high demands placed on leaders acts against this. This stress and pressure often reveals itself in rushed discussions, irritability, current operational priorities and critical rather than engaging dialogue.

But curious people don’t make excuses – they find solutions

So, given the above, how can leaders craft a path to becoming a more consistently curious leader? Here are three tips that will bring real results:


Leaders aren’t exempt from having personal development plans. In fact, they should be required to invest much more than others in their learning.

Curious leaders are constantly fascinated by new ideas that they can inhale before sharing with others. Curious leaders learn about everything – not just different technical skills and management, but about themselves, communication and psychology. New skills need to be developed. Personal mindsets need to evolve. Open your mind to how much you still have to learn.

Prepare for meetings differently

Stephen Covey’s 2nd habit of highly effective people is to ‘begin with the end in mind’. This can be a tremendous asset for efficiency and effectiveness, but it can make leaders excessively task focused and resistant to any challenge or deviation from the planned path. The curious leader builds a little flexibility into this approach and will go into meetings with a greater focus on questions rather than outcomes:

  • Questions you’re asking, or should be asking, yourself about the situation
  • Questions you want to ask of the other person(s)
  • Questions you want the other person to ask themselves

In preparing your questions, assess your own frustrations or assumptions about the person you are meeting and the situation. Can you turn your frustration or assumption into a question? Can you make sure this question is positive and curious rather than interrogating?

Develop your questioning skills and confidence

Asking powerful insightful questions is a skill that can be learned. Whilst some people have more of an instinct for it than others, curious leaders make a specific investment in developing their questioning skills – honing language, framing questions in ways that get right to the heart of a problem, seeing which approaches work in different situations.

The more time you invest in developing your questioning skills, the more comfortable you will feel in using questions and the more you will use these instinctively and unconsciously.

Workshop InformationDue to the popularity of her corporate events, Julie is running a limited number of sessions open to the public. To learn how to manage smart people, lead with curiosity, and meet your goals in a hands-on, facilitated environment, attend one of Julie’s workshops.