Be curious. Ask questions. Be ready and willing to learn something new in every encounter. This was Eleanor Roosevelt through and through. I just finished reading Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way: Timeless Strategies from the First Lady of Courage by Robin Gerber. Gerber highlights Eleanor’s curiosity and willingness to ask questions and learn as a critical leadership skill. I think Gerber is right, but it’s a leadership skill we often overlook.
Many leaders these days quickly say that their decisions are ones which are right for their employees, for their clients, for their stockholders. Yet increasingly we are seeing dissension among those groups. Employees may protest a new policy, clients may not like a new approach, and stockholders may mount an opposing option at meetings. Rather than see those as problems, a good leader will find the opportunity inside the reality that many people care about the decisions that are being made. That care and passion is exactly what leaders of churches and non-profit organizations want to see.
Eleanor Roosevelt often had very firm ideas on what needed to be done in a situation, and often those ideas were different than those of her husband and his advisors, or President Truman, who succeeded her husband. Eleanor often served as the eyes and ears of the President of the United States, asking the questions, listening to the answers, and reporting back the information needed to make better decisions. People appreciated her curiosity. Gerber, in her chapter “Never Stop Learning”, reports on Eleanor’s trip around the world when she was 67 years old. Her work with the United Nations had opened doors for her, and President Truman knew that she could bring back information no one else could. She could help him understand why people had such a distrust of white people – those in America and Europe.
Eleanor was fairly sure she already understood why those attitudes prevailed, yet the trip she took, the notes she made, and the columns she published helped America’s leaders and the American people understand it through her eyes. She spent time in Lebanon and Syria, listening to their concerns and explaining American policy about Israel. She visited Palestinian refugee camps, saw the armies of India and Pakistan face off against each other, and crawled into native mud huts in India. The Secretary of State felt she had helped foreigners understand American foreign policy. Eleanor realized from her trip of asking questions and listening to the answers that the best help the United States could give was economic, not military, and she did everything she could to convince President Truman’s administration.
The key is that Eleanor helped people feel heard and understood. Her curiosity led her to want to know about people’s lives, feelings, and opinions, and she gave them her undivided attention. They confided in her in ways that gave her great information. As she collected the information, she always assembled it in such a way to give her a bigger picture, from which helpful decisions could be made.
In our churches and organizations, we as leaders have the same opportunity. Many times we may have firm ideas or believe that we understand something, but the people who are following us have no reason to believe it if we haven’t spent time with them. Holding a staff meeting at which we ask a few questions and let our staff do the talking, sitting down with a group of church members to let them share their feelings and opinions about the proposed changes to the worship service, convening a group of donors to ask what would make them even more motivated to support our organization, asking Sunday School teachers how classes are going and what the children need most… these are the ways our curiosity can help us gain greater understanding and direction.
Look for the opportunity to be curious today… you never know what might develop!