Curious Leaders and their ability to recognise a dead horse

Ann Stow
4 min readMay 18, 2021


“If your horse dies, get off it.”

Image of shoehorned link to two topics — Pirates and Horses (apologies, but if you’re having a bad day, have a look at the winning horse halloween costumes — seriously)

A short while ago, I was asked to talk about the things I viewed as the fundamental challenges facing senior leadership. This was with a view to developing a set of interventions which would help develop board level thinking on how to tackle these challenges.

I came up with a set of 5 bullet points, which I believe provide anchors for the broader opportunities & changes that organisations and individuals need to face in the current (& emerging) climate. I can’t believe that any of these will come as a surprise to anyone, they aren’t comprehensive, and I am sure there are other challenges, words and phrases that others can suggest.

But this was the first time that my colleague and I had seen them written down together like this and what was striking was the links between them. In considering the levels of thought support and interventions to be considered, the more it became clear that without a holistic, systems & design-based (see diagram below blog) approach something would be left out / lacking; the ‘solutions’ need to be woven throughout organisational formation and development.

The 5 things I considered to be foundational to current challenges are:

· Overload of information for decision making — especially where SME/SQEP are providing information to Board level — this includes clarity of communication

· Increased requirement for those difficult ‘soft’ skills (needed even more as tech solutions increase)

· Ability to recognise own barriers to receiving and providing information

· Pace, and evolutionary nature, of change — bringing requirement for through life learning; a change in change management; new ways of working

· Creating / embracing constructive challenge within an organisation; equity & empowerment; living your values.

I called my proposals, ‘Board & Beyond’, as you’ll know by now, I believe that nothing should be determined by senior leadership alone; and the more male, pale & stale that leadership is, the more this is true. I’ve written about reflection and challenge in other musings (& pirates, and quiet disruptors), & I’ve spoken about engaging employees and stakeholders in the change process. And I would like to draw some of that together here, in terms of thinking about Curious Leadership.

For me, this is fundamental to facing the challenges head on; you need truly Curious Leaders and this is what they need to be curious about:

o Themselves, how they learn, respond to others, receive information and where they source information & why. Who do they trust and find credible, and who not… & why

o Their employees’ lived experience within the organisation, and outside. How are they experiencing process, governance, leadership, stakeholders; what is working for them and what really prevents them from being their best self

o The purpose of the organisation, the governance and processes, about technological outcomes and contributions and how they can help, or hinder progress

o How to focus on outcomes, not outputs

o How to listen, serious listening

o Leadership must recognise when a project / concept / structure / process isn’t working, is outdated, or supporting old objectives. In other words, recognise when the ‘horse is dead’ & get off it!

A Curious Leader seeks out different ideas, reads beyond their comfort zone, chats with everyone, knows their 3%. They are comfortable with not knowing, welcome challenge from their pirates and give time and space to their Quiet Disruptors. They know which experts to ask; recognising those that will be straight about what is needed and those that provide soundbites: Curious Leaders go to the former.

This approach is better for the organisation and its employees, customers, stakeholders and shareholders. For the leaders, they will learn quicker and make better decisions; for employees, customers, stakeholders and shareholders it reduces pressure and risk &, being more outcome focused, becomes more engaged and engaging.

There is no quick fix; longer term education, recruitment (not in ‘my own image’), and an openness to adopting new processes, giving space and questioning will help cultivate Curious Leadership.

One thing I can assure you, there is no 3-day course to provide the thought support and interventions needed to help a Curious Leader / Leadership develop. You can’t stick on a badge that says “I’m a curious leader”, but you can demonstrate this through your thoughts, actions, challenges and questioning….

Over to you :-)

Addendum: I rather like the idea of bringing together Systems and Design thinking; have a look at this graphic & let me know what you think. I’m curious to hear your thoughts…



Ann Stow

Passionate about making work more human - one conversation at a time.