What…how can we run an event on this topic? Was my first reaction when I found out that we were to organise an event on ‘The Value of Curiosity in Leadership’. BDO Healthcare Advisory and The Centre for Health Enterprise are running a series of seminars this year to provide a platform for continuing debate on healthcare policy challenges and this topic couldn’t have come at a better time than this with all the column inches that the NHS is getting these days.
But it wasn’t a surprise that a name came immediately into my mind for a speaker for this event. Having met Luc Bardin at a dinner last year, he seemed like the right choice with the ideal mix of curiosity and leadership experience at BP. And I wasn’t surprised when he spoke as he had done a lot of research on curiosity in leadership. He himself admitted that he never thought how those two things are so intertwined.
There were a few things that I got to take home from the event. Being aware of your zone of ‘unknown unknowns’ which determines how curious you are to explore those unknowns. It’s a bit like what Donald Rumsfeld said back in 2002 “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” The challenge is to convert some of those ‘unknown unknowns’ into the ‘known knowns’, but I presume you cannot do it without being curious and without digging deep into that zone.
There is also a definition of curiosity as an ‘inquiring mind’. If you are still not convinced then think of a child. We are all very curious as kids, and some people retain that level of curiosity even as adults. But is there a parallel between growing-up and working for an organisation? Maybe people at an early stage in their career or when they join a new organisation are curious about things and ask a lot of questions, but the curiosity dies down eventually if there isn’t the right kind of culture to encourage that curiosity. ‘Psychological fear’ as one of our panel members, Amit Nigam, put it down to – the fear of asking too many questions, or the fear that your questions might be dismissed by those senior within the organisation.
Putting it all into context, we need curiosity at an organisational-level rather than just a few individuals or only at the board-level. When things go wrong, our first reaction is to incriminate some individual/s or the entire board for the failings. What we need is a culture of curiosity which leads to ownership – people asking the right questions at each step of the way, be it doctors or nurses looking after the patients or the pilot flying a plane or people working on offshore oil rigs. Theresa Murphy, who was also on the panel, suggested that people at every level within an NHS organisation should be empowered to raise concerns when things aren’t going right and their concerns shouldn’t be dismissed. Dare I say that people in leadership roles should be brave enough to risk their own jobs if their curiosity leads them to uncover significant wrongdoings and cover-ups in their own organisation, a bit like what Michael Woodford did to expose the Olympus scandal soon after being appointed the company’s CEO.
There was a lot more discussed on the day and I could delve into this topic further. But this should be enough to make you all the more curious the next time you hear about another scandal or face a leadership challenge yourselves. What would be more interesting would be to debate on ‘The Role of Generosity in Leadership’ or ‘The Role of Curiosity in Leadership’ – pick the one that makes you more curious and keep debating!
Suraj Bassi is a Manager in the BDO Healthcare Advisory team.