Leadership: Be Curious

Leadership: Be Curious

By Louise Emerson


Louise Emerson, the Director of Take the Current Ltd, looks at the challenges of taking up a leadership role. A useful guide that pinpoints three key aspects that can help you to achieve what you want to achieve and manage the organisational expectations.

Working with and in

Often people are appointed to a leadership role, told what is expected of them in terms of KPIs, but given no advice or guidance on what it means to lead and how it differs from previous responsibilities.  Suddenly you are not just responsible for yourself but lots of others, as well as, making more critical decisions; and for MDs/CEOs, responsible for the whole organisation.

Most leaders are left to their own devices at one of the biggest changes in their working lives; taking on a leadership role.

When you take on a leadership role you are not operating solely, you are part of something bigger than just you with its own stories, routines, controls, power structure and values.  You are working with and in an interconnected system.

So, what can help you to achieve what you want to achieve and manage the organisational expectations?  I have found it really useful to look at these three aspects.

·        Know yourself

·        Understand the people

·        Be aware of the changing landscape

Know yourself

Most leadership programmes use? tools that help you to get to know yourself. Whether that’s to work out your skills, whether you are an idea generator, a finisher or an initiator etc; others will indicate whether you are a thinker or primarily driven by feelings; whether you are inspired by people or whether for you inspiration is more internally driven. And there are many more. These are useful tools, however developing a deeper level of understanding in terms of your self-awareness takes you to a higher level. This enables you to understand your drivers, your underlying beliefs about the world, yourself and others and to recognise when they are not working so well for you so that you can open and adapt your mindset.

Self-awareness is enormously powerful information; it allows you to reflect on situations and plan for change, examine how you impact others and very visibly as a leader how you communicate and how you make decisions.

Reflect to think differently

We make hundreds of decisions every day so healthy brains are constructed to make that as simple as possible by using short cuts. These short cuts are based on years of information, influences, habits, outcomes etc. Our brains use these short cuts to help us to get through a day filled with people, , decisions, and spanners being thrown at us! As well as fun and diversions.

But sometimes they are not helpful - little biases, old fears, unhelpful generalisations.

How many times have you got ‘the wrong end of the stick’? Underestimated someone’s ability?

Assumed one behaviour because of another?

We have all done it. The important thing is to reflect when those short cuts are not working and be curious about what was going on -  and think differently. We can all do that too!

Knowing what you believe in, what your values are, what pushes your buttons and what your limits are helps you to understand how you act and impact others when you reflect on situations.

Being more self-aware enables you to recognise what is unhelpful and to change your mindset when your current one is not working for you.

Being able to be open about yourself with others encourages trust, it allows you to share your power with others who have skills you do not have and it encourages you to create teams from a diverse range of experience, knowledge and expertise so that you are more able to thrive in a broader range of scenarios.

Being self-aware helps you to

·        Work better with others

·        Remain flexible and adaptable

·        Cope with change

Understanding others

Of course, understanding yourself is only part of it – “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” sums up another important skill.

All humans tend to judge people from their own experience, values, and beliefs – how they see the world. We tend to judge from what we know, think we know or who we want to be.   Indeed, we can often fool ourselves. It’s a well-known fact that people tend to overestimate the number of times they go to the theatre or exercise and we tend to underestimate the number of units of alcohol we consume!

As a coach, I have often heard people tell me confidently what a member of staff or colleague thought, or why they were not delivering and on further discussion witnessed them realise that they had never actually asked them -  they assumed that this was the reality. What else could be the reason?

Understanding your team and their motivations alongside clear communications, will help you build good trusting relationships. Getting to know your team, peers, boss means establishing an open mind, being curious, asking questions and listening to the responses – this will help you build a picture of how they think, what’s important to them, what troubles them, what they value and believe. It means delaying judgement and making assumptions and it builds trust and insight.

We have been and are continuing to live in times of huge change. Making effective change and understanding the related challenges and different approaches is a key skill of a leader. And so more than ever being adaptable as individuals and as a whole is a key skill.

Having clear communications and trust makes it possible to adapt, try new ways and still maintain strong leadership, even when mistakes happen.

Leaders make mistakes all the time

Although uncertainty is the only thing most of us can be sure of at the minute, leaders generally have to deal with varying levels of uncertainty all the time, balancing and using knowledge and experience to plan the route that will give the results required. Right now it feels like some big changes are needed, new ways of operating are required and with the unknown comes risk; and with heightened risk we are more likely to make mistakes.

The value in mistakes is in seeking to honestly understand why things did not go as expected, as this is what gives you intelligence and informs the next step. Whether you try again with changes, redesign, change the people or give it up. You need good feedback to make the decision that follows mistakes, hinderances or unforeseen issues.  Often mistakes in themselves do not cause the problems for leaders but how they are understood and where they lead to, can be where the risks lie.

Trust makes it much easier to get unbiassed feedback, generate valuable insight and therefore have the best available information to adapt.

One of the biggest jobs for a leader is making the best of her most valuable resource: the people in the organisation. Knowing them well and understanding them develops mutual trust and helps to build an effective team that is able to activate change, learn from mistakes and develop.

Be aware of the landscape

The landscape encompasses the organisation and its culture, your location, your sector, those who value/need what you do, pay or fund it; and all those that create your value.

Most organisations have a strategy or a plan in place giving all the vital information on why your organisation does what it does – the much talked about ‘purpose’. Who it is for and how is it funded? However, a leader needs to get under the skin to the informal workings and the culture. Influences and power structures are not always conspicuous. What are the routines and controls and the stories of the organisation? Culture tends to go deep, be bigger than one person and not that easy to shift.

A leader who can work with colleagues who can help an organisation see the underlying assumptions on which it makes decisions, the influencing beliefs and reflect on its actions regardless of what is written or what it has become used to saying about itself will open up possibilities and opportunities for development.

With uncertainty being the only certainty, questioning what and how you do things will enable you to find new ways to survive and develop your organisation.  Cracking open some of the assumptions of what customers will and will not do; what people need or want; your teams views and ideas; how or where you deliver your service/product and what systems, and processes are needed to change.

It’s clear over the past 6 months that local charitable organisations have shown that their local knowledge and agility has been invaluable to delivering needed services in Gloucestershire. Small nimble organisations were not roped and tied by restrictive rules and long chains of command and could identify the needs, understood the landscape and were able act fast and adapt. This was invaluable to many people needing their services.

Behaviours have changed remarkably over the past 6 months as needs have changed and new habits are forming. Things that were previously veiled or hidden have been exposed. At this time, being able to adapt will be crucial for some organisations to survive and it may be the key to their future.

In order to do this, teams and leaders need to be able to make personal shifts. As the leader you can create the openness needed to recognise underlying assumptions and influences that might be tethering the organisation and see opportunities even if they do bring some discomfort.

In summary, my takeaway thoughts for any leader would be to be curious about yourself and those around you. To raise your self-awareness, get to know your people and understand the changes in the landscape in which you are operating.

This will help you to build trust and to recognise when to adapt and take the action needed. And you will not be doing it alone.

Written in support of the Catalyst Leadership Programme run by No where and Create Gloucestershire

Louise Emerson head and shoulders

Louise Emerson, Director, Take The Current 

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Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2022