“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Confession time. Once upon a time, I was a manager. In my first big management role, I was responsible for the NZ operations of a global recruitment company. At the relatively young age of 30, inexperienced and over-confident, I threw myself into the job. And with scant mentoring support in place to guide me, I soon burned out. Big time.
The next few months were a mess, as I tried to make sense of my future. Confidence through the floor, I knew I didn’t want to go back into management, but I didn’t know what I wanted. My wheels were spinning. Frustration reigned!
Looking for guidance, I began to have a few coffees with people. One particular fellow suggested I didn’t need a coffee, I needed a lightning bolt. Cutting through my restless confusion, he asked me a simple question: “How can you make it easier for other first-time managers to succeed?” Boom! The flame that had died was re-ignited. That question was the catalyst I needed. It focused me on something that meant a huge deal to me personally. For the next ten years, I relentlessly pursued that question, building a highly successful business around it.
My story is an example of purpose igniting curiosity. When we take a big question and link it to a meaningful purpose, we get an energy boost that kicks us into focused, productive action.
Only if we know why we are doing something, can we master the great challenges of our time.
Jakob Futorjanski, co-founder and CEO of NeuroNation
You know it from your own experience, right? When your work is purposeful, you’re way more satisfied. When you work for a purpose-driven organisation, it doesn’t feel as much like hard work. When you’re pursuing a question that has deep meaning for you, you’re more likely to come up with elegantly simple solutions to complex problems.
Purpose empowers curiosity. When your curiosity is driven by a sense that ‘this is really important to me’, then you’re more likely to sustain and pursue it, even when the going gets tough. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who knows why can ensure any how.”
A couple of posts ago, we looked at the different pathways to unleashing curiosity. Here’s the idea:
Purpose is smack-bang in the middle. It’s your core ingredient to make curiosity come alive.
- Purpose makes it safer to be curious because it dials up the energy to overcome fear. As I’ve written about before, when you cultivate a sense of conviction, you build the foundation for courageous action
- Purpose helps curiosity become more focused by giving all that restless energy a direction to go (just like in my story)
- Purpose enables curiosity to be more known because it lights up glimpses of potential through the fog.
How To Grow Curiosity With Purpose
Great leadership enables people to navigate uncertainty. People thrive in uncertainty when they pursue their questions through deliberate, purposeful experiments. One of the most important things you can do is to help people find and maintain a sense of purpose in their work that gives them a) a question to pursue, and b) a way to pursue it.
In my Change Makers programme, each participant has a core task to discern their ‘big question’. Their big question focuses their restless change-making energy towards something meaningful and motivating over the long-term. Some examples of participants’ big questions include:
- How can we make workplaces more human?
- What opportunities does the rise of AI present in my industry, and how can we tap them?
- What if people took complete responsibility for the situations they found themselves in?
- How can I contribute to developing the next generation of leaders?
You can see that they’re not small questions, right? The very scale of these questions taps curiosity and asks people to consider new possibilities.
A big question:
- is meaningful and relevant to people’s real work
- is hard to answer (you can’t just Google it)
- engages the heart, not just the head (it generates excitement)
- ignites curiosity (more questions come from the big question)
- focuses attention
- creates movement and action
So, frame a big question for your people to explore. Ask people what big questions they would love to tackle at work. And watch the energy rise.
To unleash curiosity, there is no better lever than purpose.
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