Inquisitive Leaders

Volume 22 Letter 9

It was labeled as the first FDA approved sleep aid that wasn’t potentially addictive.  The executives of the company who owned the patent believed they had a blockbuster that would revive the company’s fortunes and launch them into the big leagues.   With approximately 70 million Americans suffering from insomnia and only 3 million of them taking medication for their aliment, a company executive was quoted as saying the potential for the drug was “wide-open”.

At the time the market was dominated by Ambien with $1.7 billion in sales annually.   Internal research conducted by the company indicated that a non addictive sleep aid could easily take over this market in the next two years.   However, the excitement emanating from the executives wasn’t shared by the wider team for what turned out to be good reason.  The product had a very short acting life meaning the drug could put patients to sleep but didn’t necessarily keep them slumbering.

Overconfidence bias can wreak havoc on business.  People in the drug launch team tried to dampen the enthusiasm for the new product launch however any opinions contrary to this being the next blockbuster were quickly squashed by the top management team.  Strategy challengers were dismissed as pessimists and the drug launched with a massive advertising and sales budget … and failed miserably.  The drug’s Achilles heel proved in the end to be its downfall as patients complained to their physicians that falling asleep was no good if they couldn’t stay that way for the night.

At the opposite end of the scale from the “my way or the highway” is the inquisitive leader.  No one writes business books about inquisitive leaders – it just isn’t sexy!  Indeed overconfident, dismissive leaders label the humility projected by an inquisitive leader as a sign of weakness.  It isn’t.   Inquisitive leaders are actually strong leaders.  They require more self-confidence and an abundance of patience to forgo using their power and influence to force compliance.   They don’t shut down nay sayers; instead they expose the business strategy to open debate bringing their team to focus on the larger business vision while considering multiple points of view on how to create a strategy to get there, never assuming their own opinions are infallible.

Jeff Bezos, as we all know, created Amazon as a book company back in 1996.  His vision to be the world’s most customer-centric company and to manage for the long term is reprinted in every shareholder newsletter.  It’s reported that he purchased Zappos shoes to learn from a company that publicly stated they “delivered happiness”.  This intrigued Bezos and his management team and they saw the purchase of this inspiring little company as a way to learn from Zappos culture and improve Amazon.

That’s what inquisitive leaders do.  They don’t accept the status quo and there is no stifling of opinions.  Instead there is a continuous drive for learning and relentless searching for solutions.  This means they don’t waste time trying to convince everyone that they have all the answers. They go out and find them.

The problem here is that a successful executives rise through the company ranks by unravelling  strategic challenges not evident to the average employee.  On arrival ‘at the top’, this elevated corporate position can also isolate executives from critical frontline thinkers, many falling into the trap that “they just don’t get it” when decisions are questioned.  The inquisitive leader fights against this inclination and tries to remember the team was picked for a reason and is bound to have some valuable insights even if they sound like challenges at the time.

What can we learn ….

  1. Inquisitive leaders are strong leaders: they’re not afraid to expose their strategy to scrutiny of the team.
  2. Be curious:  Combine intellectual curiosity with a passionate pursuit of facts to challenge all opinions (including your own).
  3. Stay humble: Assuming you’re the smartest person in the room is likely the dumbest thing you’ll ever do.

Obviously, no one can see into the future but when team members express skepticism about a strategy it must be given a fair hearing.  Dismissiveness and hubris in leadership can lead to missed opportunities or to stepping into pitfalls that might have otherwise been avoided.   Curiosity might have killed the cat but in business an inquisitive bent can bring new life to your company.


  1. New pill won’t put sedatives to sleep, August 9 2005 Aaron Smith CNN/Money
    2. The Line between  Confidence and Hubris by Tim Laseter – Strategy and Business

Recent Posts