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Leading Sport: Cultivating Curiosity to Realize Vision

Leadership in sport is a practice and not a position. Unlike traditional organizations where leveraging positional authority is used to motivate people, the sport leaders I interact with strive to inspire and guide independent local sport organizations through vision, influence, and persistence. While this community-based drive and passion is what sustains sport, it is also what makes leadership challenging for provincial sport executives and managers.

The very best provincial sport leaders hold a big and bold vision for the impact they want to have at a provincial level, and are supportive at a local level. When they communicate their organization’s greatest aspirations, they effectively frame it in all the ways others will succeed: athletes, communities, members, staff, volunteers, and so on. With a relentless focus on others, these leaders are masterful in describing a future where people can see their own success. Instead of telling and selling a provincial vision, they take the time to listen and connect with individuals, teams and member organizations. They are deeply curious about other peoples’ aspirations and want to help show how various visions can fit together and support each other. 

Curiosity is a critical attribute of a high impact leader, and requires more than just having an interest in other people’s views. It requires the skills to engage in the kinds of conversations that truly surface others’ aspirations, goals and challenges.

Demonstrating curiosity requires more than asking good questions. It is about suspending personal interests in a specific answer or outcome, and lingering in the topics that matter most to the people being engaged. It requires the leader to skillfully balance inquiry with advocacy, and empathy with feedback. Masterful curiosity is about listening to what is being said, but also for what isn’t being said. Exceptional leaders notice the invisible conversation, and have the courage plus the interpersonal and self-management skills to ask the difficult question. The one that will take the conversation and the relationship to a more impactful level.

Many leaders are reluctant to linger in situations that require these skills for fear of losing control, seeming too vulnerable, or being challenged. However, these intimate interactions are crucial for building trust, connection and allegiance to a broader vision. When starting from a position of curiosity, it demonstrates respect for others, opens the door to new ideas, and allows you to work together to surface and address challenges and set-backs in a productive way.

Cultivating curiosity is a leadership practice that puts others first, and is key for leading through influence rather than through positional authority. It is the only way to realize the grandest of visions.