Be the Leader Who Inspires by Asking ‘Why?’

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If you take the time to consider your educational history, you may not remember the grades you earned or most of the knowledge you gained in those years. Instead, you most likely remember the teachers, mentors, and coaches who shared their passions, who nurtured your curiosity and made learning for learning’s sake the end goal.

Those people helped you define your own learning process. They helped you find the methods you use to unravel mysteries and gather new information to this very day. A big part of who you are as a leader is likely indebted to their work.

The examples of these mentors likely also affect how you nurture learning processes in your own organization. As a leader, you set the tone. You teach those around you which processes you value most. You lead by example, by policy, and even by how you react to certain behaviors (e.g., which behaviors earn raises and which get someone fired).

How we learn in organizations and how we nurture curiosity directly inform how these organizations are able to innovate, change, and adapt. The most effective leaders, like the most effective teachers, mentors, and coaches, prioritize processes that foster growth, curiosity, and a willingness to ask questions. Out of that curiosity and questioning — as well as an openness to reevaluating what may have been previously accepted as true — come innovation and continual adaptation.

As the story goes, an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head caused him to ask, “Why?” It was hardly the first time something had fallen on someone, nor would it be the last, and yet Newton was the first person to explore the mechanism that caused that apple to fall as it did. The resulting theory of gravity changed our understanding of the way the world, our solar system, and even the universe work, all because Newton asked “Why?”

Our organizations need people who persistently ask “Why?” Our organizations need people who are curious, inquisitive, hungry to learn more, and willing to give up their preconceived notions. Without these people, our organizations grow stale, unwilling to change, and unable to adapt.

So ask yourself: As a leader in your organization, how do you nurture curiosity? How do you encourage those around you to persistently question their beliefs, assumptions, and preconceptions? How do you inspire those around you to seek new knowledge for learning’s sake?

These are the questions that get at the heart of your organizational culture and speak to the long-term dynamic health of your organization. You can likely get some sense of your organization’s learning culture simply by being observant, but it doesn’t hurt to take the time to step back and methodically examine cultural attitudes toward inquisition, learning, and growth more thoroughly.

Organizations that emphasize learning processes — in the form of thinking creatively and questioning when solving problems, for instance — arrive at results organically. Great cultures increase learning because employees are free to think outside the box, rather than getting stuck inside the paradigm of traditional results-driven thinking. Great leaders help steer those great cultures by leading by example with passion and open-mindedness.

Does your organizational culture reward intellectual curiosity, learning, and creative solutions? If not, what can you do to help your organization grow and embrace knowledge-seeking attitudes? As a leader and innovator, are you sparking passion and leading by example? And if not, how can you better do so?

It is up to you to lead by example and spark passion, creativity, and growth in your workforce.

Claudette Rowley is the CEO of Cultural Brilliance and the author of Cultural Brilliance: The DNA of Organizational Excellence.

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