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July 25, 2017

What could possibly be better than being right?

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I’m a pretty smart guy.

Like most business leaders, I depended on my raw intelligence every day to come up with the right answers to problems that stood between me and success as a television executive: which camera is the right one to buy; how can we cut our budget next year; how can we meet deadline for a new show and still keep costs low? Having the right answers to thousands of questions like these kept me and my team in business.  

And like most leaders, I felt the weight of responsibility to have the right answers. Many days my brain literally ached from the effort of finding those answers; I was the guy popping the Migraine Strength Excedrin every day.

The Power of Curiosity

Then I discovered one of the core characteristics of conscious leaders, a trait even more powerful than having the right answer: curiosity.

It’s one thing to have the right answer today, or even many days in a row. It’s something else to come up with the right answer year after year in a volatile landscape where there is high ambiguity and complexity. It was a losing battle that hurt my head.

Curiosity, on the other hand, powers the ability to quickly take in new information and act on it. This learning agility is a core skill for creating sustainable success.

Once I knew this, I got more interested in being curious than in being right. I started questioning my beliefs, especially my belief that I had the right answer. I opened myself to all feedback — even the negative stuff. I started celebrating my critics, and I got really good at apologizing for my bull-headed certainty. Instead of being afraid of mistakes, I saw those mistakes as learning opportunities for me and my team.

Life got a lot easier. No longer was I responsible for coming up with the answers; instead I put my attention on asking questions and letting others do their best thinking. My team became more engaged and invested in finding great solutions. And we had a lot more fun finding those answers.

Take the time we created a contest to see if a new production team could meet their deadline, even though they had never once hit it. The prize: open bar at our favorite Irish pub. We posted the results every day, and within a month we hit the goal and never missed the deadline again. That party cost me thousands, and it was a bargain compared to the cost of missing deadline every day.

Steve Jobs, Un-curious Learner

In case you still believe it’s more important to be smart and right than curious, here's my favorite story about Steve Jobs.

Remember the iPhone 4, that beautiful glass-and-steel wafer of a smartphone released in 2010? It had a serious flaw: when you held the phone in your hand, your fingers would interfere with the antennae and degrade its reception. One early user noticed this and emailed Jobs about it. Here’s their exchange:

Aram: Hi Mr. Jobs: I love my new iPhone 4 (nice work) but when I put my hand on the steel bands I lose all reception. It appears to be a common issue. Any plans to fix this?

Steve Jobs: Just avoid holding it in that way.

Jobs was more interested in defending his product—being right— than in learning about a problem with his phone.

How to Get More Curious

So how can you increase your curiosity? Here are some things I’ve seen successful leaders do:

  • They breathe. It’s pretty simple, but taking a few deep and centering breaths reduces our fear-induced reactivity and opens us to curiosity.
  • They move. Rather than lock themselves in a conference room to have tough conversations, these agile learners stand up, move around and even have walking meetings (Steve Jobs was famous for his walking meetings).
  • They appreciate their critics. Complainers are giving them valuable information for improvement. Learners want to keep the information coming, so they celebrate their critics.
  • They ask “what are the other possibilities?” instead of defending their original idea.
  • They explore the opposite of their beliefs to surface new information and free themselves from the tyranny of past success.

Try some of these tricks next time you notice you’re tempted to defend yourself or your work. You’ll be surprised what a difference curiosity can make.

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