What makes a good leader? Is it setting high expectations? Or the ability to articulate compelling objectives? Being task oriented? Having great people skills? A look at the literature on leadership or the tools used to measure it would give you quite a long list of characteristics. Yet, one item that would probably not appear particularly high on such a list, or might not appear at all on some, is curiosity.

I’m not talking about the casual curiosity that wants to know what’s getting done today or what progress is being made towards goals and targets. I’m certainly not talking about the kind of curiosity that needs to know all the latest gossip, or that endlessly delays making decisions because all conceivable data isn’t in yet. It’s more than listening well although that’s definitely part of it. It’s more than taking time to obtain relevant information before taking action.

What I’m talking about is that ongoing questioning that constantly probes for greater understanding. It’s a mindset of always wanting to know more, of being slow to draw conclusions, of still probing for information even after decisions have been made. I’m talking about deep innate curiosity that always wants to know how things work and why they work the way they do, that hungers for feedback on how well things are working, that recognizes the very real limits on personal knowledge and expertise—yet never stops striving to exceed those limits.

In a sense, I’m talking about having humility, acknowledging what one does not yet know, and then finding the courage to pursue those answers. It’s an attitude of questioning that, like an annoying 4-year-old, never stops asking, “Why… why… why…?”

Curiosity is arguably the single strongest driver behind innovation. It’s an abiding dissatisfaction with the status go that drives us to endlessly seek better answers and better ways and better ideas. This kind of curiosity is at least as much emotion as skill, a desire, a motivation that pushes us to do the often hard work required to satisfy it. Yet, I’m also convinced that it’s not some attribute that you simply have or don’t have. Rather, it’s a choice we all make, and the more we choose to be curious, the more we’re rewarded with the fresh insights it leads us to.

When we resist the temptation to dwell too long on past discoveries and keep our ego in check, the Aha’s that reward our curiosity fuel still more curiosity and therefore more progress and even greater insight and still more Aha’s.

In other words, curiosity is what makes innovation not only a skill, but a habit, and makes a leader an innovative leader.