Insatiable minds: The endless curiosity of innovative leaders who have changed our world

13 Dec 2012

What does Warren Buffett’s interest in History and Shakespeare have to do with his leadership success? What did Steve Jobs’ college dedication to calligraphy have to do with his future achievements? Are curiosity and humility allied with innovative leadership? 

Warren Buffett is a curious guy. While at Columbia Business School in the early fifties, Buffett would go to Standard and Poor’s to read as much as he could. He later said he “was the only one who ever showed up at those places. They never asked if I was a customer. I would get these files that dated back forty or fifty years. They didn’t have copy machines, so I’d sit there and scribble all these little notes, this figure and that figure.”

In the eighties, Buffett negotiated with Omaha’s distributor of the Wall Street Journal to have the publication delivered to him the night before its general release. “He sat up waiting to read tomorrow’s news before everybody else got to see it,” wrote Alice Schroeder in her biography of Buffett.

In 2007, Charlie Munger, vice-chairmen of Berkshire Hathaway, told 300 University of Southern California Law graduates that he and Buffett spend half of their time learning from books and half of their time learning from other people. The pair are proponents of life-long learning, the type that is not localized to their professions. Indeed, Munger takes a multi-disciplinary approach to learning (he calls it “worldly wisdom”) while Buffett is famed for including in his shareholder letters references to Shakespeare, History, and a host of other things. His friend, Bill Gates, read the entirety of the Encyclopedia Britannica when he was young while Gates’ rival, Steve Jobs, ensured we have the variety of typefaces we do on our computers due to his monkish dedication to the study of calligraphy when he was a student at Reed College. He continued studying the ancient art form on campus even after he’d dropped out.

As Arnold Edinborough writes of his mentor Louis Mobley, founder of the IBM Executive School, “Mobley…always said that the best executives were generalists, not specialists. The trait they all shared was an inexhaustible curiosity on everything from ‘NATO to Plato.’ The more they learned the more connections they saw, and these connections produced the analogies from history, psychology, philosophy, science, literature and poetry that produced the greatest creative business insights.”

It is not difficult to see how a leader with a broad, inclusive focus is likely to recognise – and use or transform—ideas and links that those with a more myopic focus might perceive as peripheral, irrelevant, or outlandish. The former leadership type is likely to diverge from the “traditional paths for seeking information” in favour of going “wherever they need to in order to find the answers that will quench their curiosity, often leading them to find things that others would miss.” In an innovation focused economy that requires vision and superior problem-solving skills, it is inevitably this type of leader that succeeds.

The application of curiosity in business manifests itself in a variety of ways, not least of which is a fervent focus on the minutiae. As Bain and Company Chairman Orit Gadiesh relates, “If I’m working with a company in the steel business, I’ll ask a million things about how a coke oven works. I’ll delve into the specifics of oven operations and the financials and talk to the people who actually run the machines. That level of detail helps us develop a better analysis; the company sees that we care about the business; and we’re able to find solutions with, not for, the client.”

In 2002, Ronette Riley’s architecture firm commenced work on the design of Apple’s new store in in the Soho area of Manhattan. Jobs was involved in a way you would never imagine of the founder of the world’s biggest startup. He chose the type of limestone, from a region near Florence, for the floor, a sample of which he had sent to him for closer inspection. He also had a model store built in a warehouse and summoned everyone from marketing people to graphics people to have a look at plans. He wanted everyone’s opinion, no matter their specialty. He succeeded; it’s an impressive store, the kind you visit just to see it.

Zappos, a company famed for its excellent internal culture, has expectations of curiosity in-built into its core values. Its fourth and fifth values are as follows:

Its tenth and final value, Be Humble, is also tied to curiosity. Without humility, a leader is unlikely to be open to others’ opinions, concede they have a deficit in knowledge in particular areas, and admit they could always improve upon themselves and their company. A humble leader is also more likely to believe their work is never done, that their company could always grow and be improved.

Indeed, humility is directly linked to higher job performance. A 2011 Baylor University study found that humility and honesty predict job performance ahead of the other five personality traits. Another study in the Academy of Management Journal found that humble leaders are “more effective and better liked.”

The authors of the study posit that leadership humility means being an example to followers of how to grow. As Bradley Owens, a co-author of the study, wrote, “Growing and learning often involves failure and can be embarrassing. But leaders who can overcome their fears and broadcast their feelings as they work through the messy internal growth process will be viewed more favourably by their followers. They also will legitimise their followers’ own growth journeys and will have higher-performing organisations.”

A successful leader doesn’t need to be superhuman. He or she can achieve by indulging their curiosity and interests and by being receptive to the contributions of others.

Warren Buffett quoted in Boynton, A. (2012), ‘Don’t Turn In Your Library Card!’,

Schroeder, A., The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. New York, Bantam: 2008.

Charlie Munger quoted in ’10 Investing Principles of Charlie Munger,’ (2012), Business Insider,

Edinborough, A. (2011), ‘Steve Jobs and the One Trait All Innovative Leaders Share,’,

Lawrence, J. (2012), ‘Why Curiosity is Key,’ The Press Enterprise,

Orit Gadiesh interviewed by Daisy Wademan Dowling (2012), ‘Bain and Company chairman Orit Gadiesh on the importance of curiosity,’ Harvard Business Review,

‘Higher Job Performance Linked to People Who Are More Honest and Humble,’ (2011), Science Daily, Research from Johnson, M., Rowatt, W., Petrini, L. A new trait on the market: Honesty–Humility as a unique predictor of job performance. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 50, Issue 6, April 2011.

Ghosen, J., (2011). ‘Humility Key to Effective Leadership,’ University of Buffalo News Centre,