Curiosity in Leadership

What does leadership mean in our world? What does it mean to me and to others? I’m curious about leadership.

Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash, iStock
Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash, iStock

A good friend once gave me her definition of curiosity as “exuberant ignorance.” I love this definition because it brings a positive tone to the phenomenon of “not knowing” and the word “ignorance,” which is regarded by many as negative.

For several years, I’ve taken on being curious as a personal core value. Sometimes when I question whether I’m being curious, I go back to her definition and ask myself, “Am I exuberantly ignorant at this moment?”

That usually puts a smile on my face. It also causes me to become aware of my state of mind and how I am feeling. I find it is very difficult to be curious when I feel threatened, insecure or exhausted.

Curiosity – welcome or unwelcome?

A former employee reflected to me a number of years ago that my inquisitive, curious and somewhat invasive presence reminded them of a dog trying to sniff out a treat. That description resonated with me, especially when it comes to solving a problem or discovering something that isn’t visible. I’ve often experienced curiosity after hearing something that doesn’t quite make sense or observing a behavior in someone that doesn’t totally add up to me.

Witnessing these phenomena sparks an interest, and I sometimes find it very difficult to let go of curiosity. Sometimes it’s gotten me into trouble. At other times, it’s allowed me to gain an understanding of something previously misunderstood or unseen.

I’ve been curious about how negative experiences or accidents, especially in the course of tree work, can be used to build relationships. A seemingly negative experience, such as felling a tree into someone’s house, can be leveraged into a life-long trusting relationship between the client and the arborist. How were they able to take something so bad and use it as raw material to build trust, understanding and friendship?

A questionable gift

A couple of years ago, I received a book from someone I had just met after attending a concert. She said, “Here, I think you need to read this.” The title of the book was “Unbound: A Woman’s Guide to Power.” When I read the title, I thought, “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be reading this book. Is this book written for me?” Somehow, I felt I might be doing something wrong or inappropriate by reading it.

This thought also sparked curiosity in me. I wondered, “How many women or people of diverse backgrounds have experienced this same thought while reading books that may not have been written for them? What had me questioning whether or not I should be reading this book?”

I leaned into this question and decided my best approach was to recruit some friends and “book-club” the reading of the book together. I got a positive response from three friends.

The author - pondering.
The author – pondering. Photo courtesy of Josh Morin.

Power of curiosity

It was during the pandemic, and a lot of us were craving connection and conversations outside of our small bubbles. We set up monthly Zoom book-club meetings. When I think back to that time, I realize there’s likely no way any of those people would agree to do such a thing now! Who wants to attend one more Zoom meeting nowadays?

Despite the digital format, I thoroughly enjoyed the book club and the sharing and different perspectives each person brought to the group. The book contained all sorts of different information and exercises designed to help people realize their power.

I believe the most valuable bit of information I took away from the book is the power of curiosity. In one lesson, the author shared a strategy that could be applied to almost any situation, especially those when we are unclear or uncertain.

It seems for many people, we have experienced “freezing up” or “defensiveness” after being questioned or receiving unwanted attention. Really, any type of feedback that puts us on our heels can cause us to freeze. When questioned aggressively, we might doubt ourselves or place our energy inward.

Practice getting curious

In the book, the author suggests that if someone directs a question or attention toward you that causes you to freeze, the best antidote to this freezing is to practice getting curious. She suggests that by directing curiosity back at the source, the energy dynamic is shifted. It then forces the other person to clarify if they want to stay engaged in the conversation. It also shifts the power dynamic of the interaction and allows the person who initially was questioned to have more influence.

As an example, I remembered back to a homeowners association (HOA) meeting I attended years before. The HOA was an existing client, and I was the arborist responsible for helping them manage and care for their trees. The community realized they needed a tree-replacement plan and hired a landscape architect to formulate the plan. She consulted with me on a number of different tree species and put together a beautiful, comprehensive tree-replacement plan, along with a professional notebook that illustrated the plan.

I attended the meeting when she shared the plan with the HOA board. Also at the meeting was the developer of the community, who still had an active role on the HOA board.

While sharing that she recommended catalpa as a replacement species, the developer interrupted and asked the landscape architect if she had gone to college and gotten a degree in landscape architecture. It was as if someone had scratched the record, and the whole room fell silent.

Changing the dynamic

The landscape architect responded that she had indeed gone to college and named the school she had attended. From my perspective, the question was asked with an aggressive tone and seemed intended to question her professional qualifications. The developer then went on to question several other recommended tree species.

Ultimately, the tree-replacement plan was approved with the exclusion of a couple of tree species, and we moved forward with a plan to replace the dying hybrid cottonwoods with more long-term, desirable and appropriate urban tree species.

But I remember walking out of the meeting with a knot in my gut, feeling uncomfortable about the questioning from the developer. It seemed designed to be personally insulting to the landscape architect. I approached her after the meeting and let her know I did not like the way he had questioned her and didn’t feel it was professional or appropriate. She brushed it off and said, “That’s just Kurt being Kurt.”

I wonder what would have happened if she had responded with a question back at him, such as, “Kurt, what makes you think it is OK to interrupt me and question my professional credentials?” or “Kurt, what has you questioning my education and background at this moment?”

It likely would have helped us get to a place of better understanding about the dynamics and perspectives at play.

Perhaps Kurt would have been bold enough to say something to the effect of, “I am questioning your professional knowledge based on you recommending catalpa in this community.” Or perhaps he would have clarified and said, “Oh, I’m sorry for cutting you off. I didn’t mean to do that. I just wanted to know where you went to school.”

Of course, that is not what happened in this example, and it is often seemingly difficult to conjure questions of curiosity in a moment when we feel uncomfortable.


Perhaps with practice or even circling back after the fact, we can take the opportunity and use exuberant ignorance to help gain a better understanding of the interactions going on around us. We can use the unknown as a guide for our energy and hopefully influence the workplace, and maybe the world, toward a place of better understanding.

Josh Morin, Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA), is owner of We Love Trees, a TCIA member company based in Niwot, Colorado. He is also a recent past member of TCIA’s Board of Directors.

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