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Common leadership traps and the power of curiosity

I’ve always believed that leadership is a privileged position and that, as leaders, we are there to help our people understand their purpose and have pride in their role.

I’ve worked for great leaders and for horrifically bad leaders. And I’ve learned from both.

Because I see leadership as being all about making a difference to people, I’ve always taken the time to get to know the people who are in my team. I mean properly get to know them. Understanding whether they have a hobby, whether they’re a cat or a dog person, who their ‘significant others’ are.

I’ve always been curious.

Understanding beliefs

At Transform Performance International, everything we do is underpinned by the understanding that beliefs drive behaviours which, in turn, drive outcomes.

We start with what people believe, and to understand this we need to be curious. This approach stems from the original work done by our founders, who weren’t willing to accept their initial research into what drove high performance, and who then persevered to prove their instinct that success was more than just coincidence.

I knew fairly early in my leadership career that I took a less-than-usual approach when I was headhunted by a major high street retailer who were known for having a more progressive culture. They were very fair and balanced and had been attracted by my inclusive style. Their mantra stayed with me and so did a particular memory…

…I led a team of over 100 people, ranging from students working weekends for their pocket money, to an 80-year-old who collected trolleys in the car park.

One day at work I was asked whether I knew something about each of my employees. I was told that it wouldn’t be possible to ‘really know’ my whole team as that would mean having over 100 facts readily to hand. I challenged back: “ask me anything about anyone”.

The truth was, my curiosity had come into its own, and I did know something about everyone. Not necessarily obvious things like their performance scores, how old they were or what their career history involved, but things that only come to light if you have quality conversations with people. They were the things that mattered, or that shaped people.

And, because of this, they were often things that shaped people’s beliefs too.

Leadership traps

It’s through this experience that I’ve realised there are some traps that many people fall into when carving their way as a leader.

  • They’re so busy, they don’t slow down to think. That’s why we always include time for reflection in the workshops we design for our clients. It’s time to be curious.
  • They don’t ask themselves what they want their team to ‘think, feel and do’. Most don’t therefore communicate what they want to see in terms of behaviours and attitudes.
  • Many don’t have a vision for the type of leader they want to be. They may have been promoted because of the skills they displayed in their role and, without fully understanding their true beliefs, or appreciating what they’ve learned from their life experiences, their outcomes will be muddled.

It’s therefore true to say that curiosity applies even when reflected on yourself. You cannot grow as a leader, or individual, without knowing where you are heading or how you want to get there.

A new dimension

The advent of hybrid working has added yet another dimension to our ability to be curious. There are no more ‘corridor meetings’ or ‘watercooler chats’. The time in which we socialise with our teams may just be in the margins of a Zoom or Teams meeting. A digital interface that works best when one person is talking and lots are listening. It doesn’t facilitate conversation and certainly doesn’t seem to give permission for curiosity and the sort of chit-chat that builds relationships.

So, for the leader of the remote team, there’s another task to add to the already full list: finding time to get the team together and build bridges.

Add to this that today’s workforce wants to experience something that is more fulfilling than the basic nine to five, that people have realised the importance of purpose, and you’ve got an unsolved equation.

Leaders are faced with less opportunity to interact with their teams…coupled with a greater need to understand what experiences have or are shaping the way people want to live their lives.

Living through covid and lockdown will stand out as one of the most transformational moments in history as it afforded people the time to reflect, to work out what their priorities were, and, most importantly, to give them an opportunity to experience life at a different pace; to see what they were missing out on when it came to spending time with those they loved.

It’s no coincidence that phenomena such as The Great Resignation have followed hot on the heels of the events of 2020 and 2021.

Challenges give rise to opportunities

However, it’s not all bad news, of course. From every challenge, an opportunity is born and ours is the reminder that we can choose to take the time to be curious. As leaders, it is within our gift to enable our teams to do the same.

My advice, to anyone who wants to take it, would be to slow down.

Take the time to be curious – about yourself, others, and your experiences. Take a moment to think about whether those experiences should still be guiding you – that they are still serving you, not curtailing your willingness to grow.

The great Arthur Ashe once said “success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is more important than the outcome.”

I’d go as far as to say that leadership is the same.

For more insights on leadership, team development, and organisational performance read about unlocking discretionary effort here


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