Focus is important. Curiosity is essential. So what we need is focussed curiosity, advises Rainmaking founder Martin Bjergegaard and entrepreneur Cosmina Popa. This is an excerpt from their new book, How to be a leader, on what good leadership contains today. (Being feared or keeping your enemies close has nothing to do with it.)
At a fundamental level, all progress starts with curiosity – with different versions of the basic question: how can this be done in a better way? Without curiosity we wouldn’t have smart phones, the International Space Station, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or selfie sticks.
Leaders make a reality happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The best of them keep their creative powers from childhood, they continue to learn with an open mind, and we marvel at their ability to ask unexpected questions and reimagine the reality that the rest of us have grown to accept as the status quo.
The truth is that this ability doesn’t need to be scarce. It has very little to do with IQ or any innate capability. It’s rather a habit, a choice, and a skill that we can practice and improve. Curiosity is in fact at all times readily available to all of us. Unleashing it might be what it takes to propel our leadership to the next level.
Here we will make a case for curiosity as a leadership tool, and give you specific ideas for how to practice and expand your capacity for curiosity. For inspiration we will share an example of a remarkable Danish leader who, by using his curiosity, is transforming two of the most conservative institutions: education and politics. But, like most things, curiosity has a dark side, and we will address that as well, so that you can steer clear of the pitfalls.
First, imagine a world without curiosity. When we engage in that thought experiment it quickly becomes clear that such a world would be incredibly boring. Tomorrow would be more or less like today. Forever. Whilst that might seem comforting to those of us who feel overwhelmed by the VUCA (Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) premises of the modern world, I think most of us will agree that living the same day over and over again would eventually kill our human spirit. Inmates do it, and we call it punishment. A lot of people do it when retired – and those are the ones that seem to be getting ten years older during their first year of retirement. In order to thrive, most of us need surroundings and circumstances that change, develop and ideally improve. Our curiosity is what makes tomorrow interesting.
First, imagine a world without curiosity. When we engage in that thought experiment it quickly becomes clear that such a world would be incredibly boring. Tomorrow would be more or less like today. Forever.
Another great thing about curiosity is that it is the foundation for learning. Children are the most curious of our species, and they are the fastest learners. Likewise for us adults, every time we ask a question and listen to the answer we learn something. When we share our own thinking, or viewpoints that we have been committed to for years, we might at best influence someone else or sound smart. But we will surely not expand our minds or learn anything new.
If, in your leadership, you encounter some level of feeling stuck, overwhelmed or even depressed, curiosity can be the fast track out. You might get advice like ‘try not to worry so much’, ‘time is short so enjoy your life’ or ‘be grateful for all you have’. But those things are virtually impossible to do when feeling really down. Even in the toughest moments we can find something, however tiny it may be, to be curious about.
Interviewed by Jonathan Fields for his podcast, the GoodLife Project, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the iconic bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, shared what had been her own way out of a deep depression. For days on end she had found herself curled up in a corner of her couch, crying helplessly. She was really sad – and felt unable to get back on track. Then one day her curiosity led her to ask what if she wasn’t in fact totally helpless, what if she could alter something about this picture? She couldn’t stop crying, but she wondered if she could stand on one leg whilst sobbing – instead of being on the couch. It turned out that she could. What might seem like a small change, felt like a massive win for Elizabeth.
The next day she did it again, and this time she suddenly found herself laughing at how ridiculous she must have looked, standing there on one leg in the middle of the living room, crying. This became the turning point in her depression, and with curiosity by her side she took baby steps that eventually brought her back to living not only a good life, but in fact a great and enormously creative life.
Now let’s look at another leader that embodies curiosity. Uffe Elbæk started out doing art projects and creative entrepreneurial endeavours of the sort that the establishment had a hard time understanding. In the autumn of 1989 Uffe and his friends arranged for more than 2,000 young Danes to enter into the Soviet Union, at the time one of the most totalitarian and closed places on the planet. The plan was to organize a rock concert in front of Moscow University. The Danish rock band Sort Sol was one of the names on stage, and was subsequently banned in the communist country, where rock concerts were just as rare as democratic rights. For the young campaigners the experience was breathtaking, dramatic, and boosted their self-confidence.
Afterwards the group asked themselves this simple question: ‘What kind of education could prepare more people to do what we did?’ They quickly realized that such an education did not exist; in fact they couldn’t find anything suitable anywhere in the world.
Starting from a point of curiosity, Uffe and his friends, with their characteristic flair for action, went on to launch their own school that they named KaosPilot University. Their mission was to create a holistic experience for the students, where body, mind and spirit were equally applied and developed, and where creativity, freethinking and entrepreneurship were at the heart of everything they did. Students shouldn’t be kept on the bench, listening to long monologues on abstract theories, instead they should be out practising how to create the future. At the same time the education was heavily inspired by philosophy, art and science, making it an incredibly insightful as well as refreshingly action-oriented environment.
Students shouldn’t be kept on the bench, listening to long monologues on abstract theories, instead they should be out practising how to create the future.
Today, KaosPilot has been recognized by Businessweek as one of the best design schools in the world, and Fast Company has named it in its Startup Leagues Big 10. They have expanded internationally, and are co-creating education programmes together with renowned institutions like the Royal College of Art in London and the Hong Kong Design Centre. Half of their alumni are in leadership positions, and another 33 per cent have started their own businesses. I have met numerous KaosPilots and it’s remarkable how they all share the same can-do attitude. They are creative, curious, self-confident and action-oriented.
After having once again successfully made his own utopia become a reality, Uffe Elbæk started wondering about what it would take to transform a whole country to become more vibrant, open-minded and inspired. From the sidelines I witnessed him go into politics, and like most other Danes, I have to admit I didn’t predict he would last very long. We all know that politics is brutal, and from my outsider perspective Uffe didn’t seem cynical or thick-skinned enough to have staying power in the political menagerie.
When I interviewed Uffe for this book, he recalled standing on a street corner in Copenhagen, when one of his volunteers asked him this question: ‘Why don’t we start a new political party?’ His first reaction was ‘no way’, but over the following days, curiosity kicked in and he watched himself return to the thought. Shortly after the seed was planted, he sat down and wrote a manifesto, and systematically worked through his favourite eight-step process for concept development, analysing the project via multiple lenses.
On 27 November 2013 Uffe Elbæk together with Josefine Fock presented the ideas and thoughts behind a new political party in Denmark, named The Alternative. Uffe explained to the press how The Alternative had a value statement and a manifesto, but not yet a political programme. The reason being that they were against the traditional top-down structure, and had involvement as a key value – so instead of merely presenting a political programme they thereby extended an open invitation to the entire country to participate in a number of ‘political laboratories’.
These labs would effectively function as a platform for crowdsourcing the party’s political programme. The commentators didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Most of them settled on a perception of The Alternative as a sort of practical joke, or at best a protest party. None of them predicted any real likelihood that Uffe and his colleagues would get enough votes to even get a single seat in the parliament.
Once again the establishment had underestimated Uffe Elbæk. At the parliamentary election on 18 June 2014, The Alternative got almost 5 per cent of the votes, earning as many as nine seats. Among all the Danish politicians Uffe came in at number ten on the number of personal votes.
What the commentators hadn’t understood was that even the rules of politics could be innovated and improved upon. Whilst the experts weren’t really curious about The Alternative, the voters were. Crowdsourcing a party programme might not have been done before, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
With its six core values – courage, generosity, transparency, humility, humour and empathy – The Alternative is indeed setting the tone for something new, fresh and unconventional. Humour is not exactly what comes to mind for most of us when thinking of politics (mockery and sarcasm excluded). And how often does a politician strike us as being humble?
Clearly my curiosity hasn’t only been an asset, it’s often been a liability too.
Whilst curiosity is without a doubt awesome, it has a shadow side that we need to address as well. When we are very curious, there is a risk that we will often be distracted. When I tell people I have started ten businesses (during a fifteen-year period) they might think that I am bragging, but in fact I am admitting a weakness. I can now see that it would have been better if I could have started fewer initiatives and given each of them more focus and patience – but my curiosity has seduced me quite a few times. I have written books, started a school in India, launched a new kind of book-publishing company for the American market, created an online donation platform for charities, fought hard to buy a chain of shops selling health-food products, and much more. Clearly my curiosity hasn’t only been an asset, it’s often been a liability too.
Focus is important. Curiosity is essential. So what we need is focussed curiosity. For instance, when we are on a mission to grow, say, an e-commerce company selling home-decor products, it’s really useful to be curious about interior design trends, industry benchmarks for average order size and conversion rates, what makes our customers happy, how they are using our products, etc. It is less helpful to be captivated by a device for the shipping industry, or obsessed with whether we have what it takes to write a fantasy novel. All is good stuff, but in its right time. For our leadership to be effective we need clarity of direction, purpose and vision. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult for others to follow our lead.