The ‘born ready?’ series: curiosity

Originally published by Third Force News on 20 March 2017

The leadership industry offers numerous theoretical frameworks and models, ranging from the instructional to the inspirational. The majority of these models are focused on the exogenous – the external factors – and offer up-skilling and progression as a solution to overcoming leadership challenges. But is this enough?

After spending 2016 as a Clore Social Leadership Fellow, I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but with the knowledge that I have gained from that intense fellowship year and reflecting on my 15 years of working towards social justice I offer this: Leadership should be more about regression than progression. That is to say, chances are we probably once had many of the qualities that would make us a strong leader, but we have lost or forgotten them. Perhaps more concerning, we might have learned not to value them as we should. We need to tap into our inner-child and re-learn the qualities that childhood gifted us, and value them as leadership traits.

In the first of this series of blogs, I explore the child-like quality of ‘curiosity’.

I’m sure none of our parents expected to give birth to pint-sized Paxman’s but this is what many of them got. “Do the trees make the wind?”, “Do they close the roads to switch on all the Cats Eyes?”, “Where is my soul?”, and of course, “Where do babies come from?”. As children we’re naturally curious about the world around us, and less willing to accept things at face value. The circle of why is a phenomenon that delights curious young minds and frustrates parents in equal measure. Yet at some point we learned to be less curious; “Why?” became annoying and stopped eliciting the responses that we liked.

If we’re to lead the change that we seek, then it’s critical that we think differently, and maintain a curious approach to everything we do, and everyone we do it with.

Research shows that our questioning drops off dramatically after the age of five, suggesting that schools have a role to play here too. I remember from my own experience that school rewarded the children who knew the answer, not asked the best questions, and this pattern of rewarding answers over questions continues into our professional life.But without leaders asking Why? What If? and How?, we stifle our creativity. At best we are doomed to tweak existing behaviours, programmes and ideas. At worst we are set to repeat the mistakes of the past. If we’re to lead the change that we seek, then it’s critical that we think differently, and maintain a curious approach to everything we do, and everyone we do it with.

I started doing this a few years ago, particularly in relation to who I work with. It’s now habitual for me to be more curious soon after appointment to get to know my new colleagues more closely. I start with two questions. First I ask “what matters to you?”. Beyond an interview environment and trying to impress the new boss, I aim to get to know my new colleagues more personally. I talk about what matters to me, and give the example of walking my dogs at lunch times, hoping to give them permission to share what matters to them and how we can fit work in to their life. I also ask them to tell me about their favourite line-manager (or sometimes their least favourite – depending how mischievous I’m feeling). This gives me an idea of how they do/don’t like to be managed and supported. This curiosity is simple, but it has had a big impact on my relationships with colleagues and helps me to create an environment in which we can all thrive.

I’m also more curious in circumstances and conversations where I disagree. In the spirit of curiosity, I have become better at listening to understand, rather than listening ready to challenge with my view.

So, what’s stopping us being more curious? Potentially lot’s of things! Have you ever heard it quipped that there’s “no such thing as stupid questions, just stupid people?. Asking questions can cause us to be perceived as naive or ill-informed. Asking a question might feed our imposter syndrome, or we could risk letting our demigod masks slip in front of those who we prefer to think of us as strong, and all knowing- such that they can trust us to lead them. Perhaps then, there was something else within us as children that we’ve unlearned…

The elephant in the room

Today is World Elephant Day, so I’m taking the opportunity to talk about the elephant in the room – racism and lack of diversity in our sector.

It’s almost two years since an analysis of the top 50 fundraising charities revealed that 88% of Chief Executives were white, and 70% male. In senior management roles 94% were white, and 56% male. This is a sharp contrast to the society that we all live in and yet not much seems to have changed. So, why all the white guys?

As part of my Clore Social Leadership journey, I am currently working with Defenders of Wildlife in Washington D.C. I’ll be here for six weeks and as I’m learning so much here, I explored with the organisation what I might feasibly do for them in such a short time. What are their priorities? I was delighted to hear the response of “We’d like to be an even more welcoming and inclusive organisation”. Given my passion for leaders making decisions with, and not for the communities that we serve, I’m excited to see what I can do.

In exploring this important issue, I can’t ignore a social and political context to discussing diversity in our world today. Racial tensions in the U.S. are high as a result of disproportionate shootings of African American men killed by the police. Recent shootings of police officers have been called ‘revenge attacks’, and organisations such as Black Lives Matter are accused of race-baiting. Worldwide, we are hearing increased political rhetoric that risks inciting or spreading fear and can contribute to a feeling of different=DANGEROUS. I’m fortunate in Defender’s that the organization understands the power of diversity, and have identified increasing diversity as a priority, so I don’t need to have the conversation here. But we absolutely need to be having the conversation in our sector.

In this context I ask myself, how do we have a conversation about diversity and inclusion that can create the change without making the white, middle-class, heterosexual men feel excluded, or even threatened? (Then there’s a whole internal dialogue that argues “who cares if they’re threatened, they need to get over it, but I’m not sure if that will affect the change we need).

Maybe we could start by making ‘diversity’ more inclusive?

Often our sector can see diversity as an HR issue, or we create tick-boxes to monitor how we’re doing. More progressive thinking recognises that diversity goes beyond race, gender, religion, age etc. It recongnises that I’m diverse in the speed in which I learn, as well my sexual identity. Diversity goes beyond the visible. As a sector, we should lead the way in celebrating all diversity. As a priority this must include recognising individual differences that cause disadvantage, such as the people’s race or religion, and making real and determined efforts to mitigate the impact of those differences in our employment practices.

I know that we need the best minds to solve the big challenges that face our sector today, and the more diverse those minds the better. I know that a diverse workforce can help to redress our unconscious bias, and give us the best chance to connect with and understand the communities that we serve. I strive to create an inclusive environment but I look at the teams that I’ve been responsible for recruiting and I know that we don’t represent Scotland’s vibrancy, and diversity. The question I really need to be asking myself is ‘Why?’, and I invite you to do the same.