Why curiosity is critical to becoming an agile leader

Executive coach and leadership advisor Dr Fred Petito explains why executives must foster a more open and exploratory approach to problem-solving

Technological advances, stakeholder activism and growing polarisation are just some of the disruptions overturning the traditional definition of leadership.

Today’s most pressing problems for leaders are often being encountered for the first time, highly complex and even related to forces that are difficult to identify.

In an ever-changing world, conventional leadership approaches that rely on tried-and-trusted strategies rarely generate the innovative solutions required to address unprecedented challenges. 

“To lead with agility in such a dynamic environment, leaders need to foster a more open and exploratory approach to problem-solving,” says Dr Fred Petito, an executive coach and leadership advisor who has worked at a host of big-name companies including R/GA, Grey Group, VMLY&R and Edelman

“First, this requires becoming comfortable with ambiguity to see emerging opportunities and threats sooner and with more clarity. Then, they need to develop the ability to formulate original, breakthrough and frequently untested ideas to respond to these opportunities.

“In other words, executives need to cultivate a more curious mindset to lead with agility in an uncertain world.”

Common barriers to curiosity 

Humans are “hardwired for curiosity”, says Dr Petito. He labels it a critical trait that has “evolved to support our survival and advance civilisation

Clearly, however, cultivating a curious mindset can be difficult for even the most experienced executive, who may have received business schooling or other training emphasising technical skills and siloed ways of thinking, preventing them from exploring new approaches that stray from orthodoxy.

But Dr Petitio believes a more common reason is that many executives simply haven’t had the opportunity to develop the specific abilities and behaviours that make someone curious. 

“The good news is that, while some people are more genetically predisposed to have a curious mindset, research shows that up to 60% of a person’s level of curiosity is not dictated by genetics,” he adds.

“The even better news is that curiosity can be stimulated and cultivated by changing how we approach new situations and challenges.”

Below, Dr Petito offers up a host of mindset shifts and habits that executives can explore to cultivate a more curious mind and elevate their agile leadership abilities. 

Five mindset shifts to increase curiosity

  • Foster a growth mindset: Leaders must embrace the belief that intelligence and abilities can be developed through effort and practice, says Dr Petito. “Approach challenges as opportunities for growth and view failures as learning experiences. Think ‘playing to win’ instead of ‘playing not to lose’.”
  • Become comfortable with diverse perspectives: Dr Petito says executives should seek out differing viewpoints and actively engage people from different backgrounds, disciplines and cultures. “This helps broaden your thinking and enables you to approach problems from multiple angles,” he adds. 
  • Cultivate a learning mindset: Stay up to date with the latest trends, technologies and developments in your field. Continuously learn and acquire new knowledge and skills to stay ahead of the curve.
  • Embrace ignorance: “Assuming you know everything about a topic is the easiest way to quell curious instincts,” says Dr Petito. He recommends bringing a beginner’s mind to even the most familiar situations to unlock new ways of thinking.
  • Reevaluate old ways of thinking: “By challenging existing ways of thinking, leaders give themselves – and their teams – opportunities to discover more innovative solutions to old problems, and avoid the trap of bringing old solutions to new challenges.”

Five habits that stimulate curiosity

  • Ask questions: “Cultivate a habit of asking questions about the world around you,” says Dr Petito. Leaders must be bold and question even the most basic concepts.
  • Pursue diverse interests: It’s important for executives to engage in a wide range of activities and explore various subjects. Exposure to different fields and perspectives can spark curiosity and allow for interdisciplinary connections.
  • Develop observational skills: Pay attention to the world around you and observe details that others might overlook. Dr Petitio says this can spark new ideas or inspire innovative solutions to existing problems.
  • Be an active listener: When engaging in conversations or presentations, leadership figures are advised to listen attentively, show genuine interest in what others have to say and make an effort to understand their viewpoints.
  • Be an active learner: Dr Petito says senior executives should actively participate in their company’s learning process, instead of being passive consumers of information. Acquired knowledge can then be applied to real-life situations.

“Cultivating a curious mindset is a continuous journey that can unlock personal and professional creativity, growth and success,” Dr Petito concludes. 

“It’s an ongoing process that requires practice, persistence and actively seeking out opportunities to learn and evolve.”

Dr Fred Petito is the Founder of Attain Leadership, which offers transformative executive coaching and leadership development services for emerging and senior marketing and agency professionals.


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