The Single Most Important Quality for Transformational Leaders

Recently, I was asked a very difficult question: “What do successful leaders of transformational growth have in common?”  

There were many things that came to mind such as vision, perseverance, external marketplace knowledge and effective communication skills. Yet one attribute trumps them all. Without this attribute, even with a strategic plan to drive growth and skills in best practices, at best the organization experiences modest operating performance improvement and for most, well, they are bound by business gravity.

The quality? Curiosity.

Sounds so simple. But here is what it buys you:

>> Curious leaders want to know why something is the way it is. They don’t accept the status quo or the answer that “we have always done it that way.”

When you know the “why” behind something, you can determine the “fit.” Does it make sense to keep doing it? Does it “fit” with where we are trying to go? Does it “fit” with what we are good at? Does it “fit” with what our customers need and want?

Curious leaders are always open to doing something differently or better. In a recent strategic planning session, a CEO asked his team, “What opportunities are we not seeing because we are wearing company ‘blinders’ built from years of experience and history?” A curious leader focuses on the right things and encourages others to do them better.

>> Curious leaders like to learn about new things. That means they are students of their marketplace, the macro economy and what customers think. They don’t assume they know—they ask, they explore, they find out. With better knowledge comes better solutions.

One question always asked when working with clients is “What are the specific reasons your customers buy from you rather than the alternatives available to them?” Invariably, the initial answer is expressed with confidence, but as the team examines the question in more depth, from the perspective of different functional areas, the answer is less certain.

Finally, it is discovered they don’t really know. And if you don’t know, how can you meet the needs of customers, retain them and acquire more like them? Curious leaders understand what is going on around them to ensure they are innovating in the right direction.

>> Curious leaders prefer to ask their team and workforce for recommendations rather than direct every action. Why? Because when we tell, we don’t really teach people to think. And people who don’t think also don’t invent, innovate or contribute value. They just do. That means the organization can only grow as far as the bandwidth of the leader reaches.

If you ask employees to tell you what they would recommend to solve a problem or advance their area, it requires them to also be curious—to know more about what customers need, how the market is changing, how the company makes it money and what is needed for effective internal operations. The workforce that is engaged functions at a higher level than the one that is told what to do. Same people. Same roles. Better results.

A large national retailing chain decided to empower employees. So leadership shared the vision, and gave employees the tools and authority to ask questions and make suggestions—engaging them in problem solving. Within one year, the chain saw profitability increase by more than 20 percent. It makes a difference. A curious leader engages the workforce to share the curiosity with the common goal to improve company performance.

Curiosity: Such a simple idea, but such a powerful one.  Be curious!