THE BLOG
05/10/2012 12:01 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Raising Tomorrow's Leaders Today: Are You a Natural Leader?

I was recently asked why it's important to teach our children leadership and innovation. My response: You don't have to. Every person is wired with the instincts to lead and innovate. All you have to do is hone and develop these natural instincts.

Our best recourse to having great leaders is to provide environments where people of all ages can discover and fine-tune their natural tendencies to innovate and lead.

It begins with curiosity

Curiosity is central to innovation. It is also a primal instinct. Curiosity is hardwired into us to enhance our survival. Can you imagine a world where children are encouraged to develop this natural instinct? Can you imagine what levels of innovation could be reached?

Children are natural learners full of natural curiosity. And there is no limit to a child's ability to imagine. When imagination is combined with curiosity, anything can be created. Albert Einstein said it wonderfully well: "Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world."

What stimulates your curiosity? When was the last time you created a place and a space to imagine? If you want a litmus test for how imaginative and innovative you truly are, spend several hours with children and see if you can hold their interest.

Uncertainty on a primal level is meant to evoke curiosity, not fear. Robert Gagosian, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, suggests that curiosity is thinking beyond what you normally think about: "... you are climbing a mountain and you see a ridge. Curiosity to me is, what is beyond that ridge and how am I going to get to it? And what does it look like? And is it going to be something that is going to be scary? Is it going to be something interesting?"

In order to understand where you are in your own interaction with your instincts, discern whether uncertainty evokes curiosity or fear in you. Before we started to control our environments instead of adapt to them, as we did when we were cave dwellers, everything had an element of uncertainty -- which stimulated curiosity and which motivated us to go see whether something was safe. We had to be curious to finally emerge from living in caves. And we had to be curious to become hunters and gatherers. If you doubt that curiosity remains part of our natural hard-wiring, watch children and listen to their endless questions.

Companies and innovation

Right now companies are fascinated with innovation. What will make them emerge from the metaphorical cave so they can grow and prosper? What can push them ahead of the curve once and for all? Filling companies with curious people invested in and engaged with their vision would be one answer. Fred Dust of IDEO for example, was recently quoted on IDEO's newsfeed as saying he believes curiosity is the spark behind new development in innovation in 2012.

When you're exploring, you're learning. This is the value of curiosity. It invokes a natural learning state. And when you're learning, you're leading. You have stepped out of the cave, and others can then follow. One of my favorite definitions of leading is the ability to inspire following.

Katie Salen of the MacArthur Foundation asks a great question: Who is responsible for teaching children to thrive and grow up to be curious, engaged citizens?

I say every one of us is responsible for teaching this. And every one of us is responsible for becoming a curious, engaged citizen so that we can teach our children -- our future leaders -- how to be one.

Curiosity emerges when we feel safe. When we don't feel safe, our survival skills kick in and we focus on getting ourselves to an empowered environment. Instincts are the internal mechanism wired into us so we can first survive and then thrive. That's the natural order. Where are you in that order? Are you surviving or thriving? Increasing your level of curiosity will have an immediate impact on changing surviving to thriving.

There is a fine line between the constructive tension that can activate curiosity and the anxiety that derives from too much tension.

In an empowered environment, where curiosity flourishes, we feel the tension and can use it. In a fear-based environment, tension turns to anxiety, effectively shutting down curiosity and creativity.

Nurturing the bottom line

Companies, communities and families have an eye on the bottom line and how to keep it growing and healthy. In an empowered environment, you are encouraged to be curious about the bottom line In a fear-based environment; there are so many control mechanisms in place that creativity and curiosity are stifled, effectively snuffing out the very devices wired into us to figure out how to keep ourselves healthy and growing. With any bottom line, the level of negative fallout indicates just how sustainable it is.

A few months ago, I had the honor of being granted five minutes during a silent retreat with a Zen Buddhist monk master. We were told we could ask one question. I wanted to be smart and ask something meaningful, something that would save the world and be helpful to everyone. Instead the pain and rage of having recently lost my horse in an incomprehensible way, boiled to the surface, and when I was ushered through the door, the pain and anguish erupted from me. I poured out the grief, railed against the injustice, and in the end, exhausted, I stared up at the figure that was swimming in my tears and said, "How do I get past my pain and my anger?"

He did not hesitate in his answer. With kindness and certainty he said: "The answer to every question is found in curiosity."

Perhaps I may have inadvertently asked a question, the answer for which could indeed help others and our world. What if, for example, we became curious as to what was important to others, including plants and animals, and discovered it was the same thing that was important to us?

I have found that simple questions keep curiosity fresh and at hand. Questions such as:

Asking yourself on a regular basis: What is important to me, and why?

Or as you interact with others, ask them: What is important to you, and why?

A child sees things with clarity, because a child hasn't developed the filters that often prevent us from seeing possibilities and truths. Curiosity enables us to take the blinders off and see things fully and clearly and perhaps even to regain some of that child-like wonder we once had. Curiosity enables us to be, and develop, great leaders.

What question can you ask yourself today that will stimulate your curiosity for tomorrow?