Curiosity as an Inner Enabler for System Change
Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, PhD, FRSA is an Associate Professor and Academic Director at HEC Paris in Qatar, with over 20 years of experience in teaching, researching, and advising on diversity, innovation, and leadership. Shaheena’s mission is to empower individuals and organisations to embrace diversity and foster innovation in their teams, cultures, and strategies. She has co-founded and directed two entrepreneurship centres for UK business schools, and currently develops and delivers executive education programs for diverse and high-profile clients at HEC Paris in Doha and globally. Shaheena has a track record of international voluntary work, and is an active member of several advisory boards and initiatives that support diversity, women’s leadership, social entrepreneurship, and STEM activities. She is also a Forbes contributor and a published author, sharing insights and best practices with a global audience.
Shaheena, what are the biggest challenges you see in business education and leadership research?
Shaheena: When we think about education in business schools, we build on business models and frameworks that are absolutely critical. Most of the foundational research is 70 years old, and was carried out in North America and Western Europe, with white middle class or working class men. There is no doubt this research is important and the basis for our understanding of the work but the research represents behaviour ascribed to a particular group that is homogenous by today’s standard.
Today the profile of leadership is far more diverse in terms of gender, age, ethnicity and socio-economic background, and the moulds that have dominated the discourse for leadership need to adapt. The workplace is vastly different and so the constructs of leadership need to evolve rapidly to address scenarios we hadn’t predicted. But this means in education while we teach from the dominant forms of leadership we need to bring in even more conversations, case studies and examples of emergent leadership and provide gravitas to these new models. We have to challenge assumptions around models and leadership and we need to encourage students to do the same.
From a research point of view, we see thousands of papers published on leadership every year. There are so many different types of leadership that it’s becoming difficult to create clusters of emerging leadership. It’s exciting to understand how new leadership approaches respond to the complexity of our lives today, but at the same time there is a trend to more conservative and traditional forms of leadership in politics and playing out into the business world, strongman leadership. In situations of great turbulence and uncertainty, we see people want strong decision-makers, but with catastrophic consequences.
Which impact does it have on the leadership models?
Shaheena: Often students ask: what type of leadership should I be developing? For me, this question is less about the what and more about the how. To be an effective leader, you need to not only understand the theories, frameworks, and limitations, but be the skills to critique the different models and differentiate between the different approaches. Leadership is a blend of science of art, you need to not only understand different approaches, but also how to apply different skills. And this is what agility means to me – having different leadership skills and tools, understanding the values they bring, and knowing when to deploy them.
During COVID, we saw a surge in autocratic leadership because people had to make decisions very quickly without having complete information. We also saw that women leaders performed better than their male counterparts, in the absence of certain knowledge they were open to asking questions and collaborating. They were okay with not knowing everything, so they built teams around them to ensure different ways of thinking. The research around death rates, hospital admissions, and other hard facts has shown that collaboration performed better than other forms of leadership although it’s often seen as weak in very strong cultures. Women leaders strengthen the ability of teams to innovate and collaborate for new ideas – which we discuss in my latest book Take the Lead.
But the conversation needs to shift. The leader is not necessarily the person who just sets a vision and leads, today they need to be more skilled to cultivate new solutions to complex problems. The best problem-solving happens when you have teams working together, and even more when teams represent significant diversity in expertise, experiences and thinking to generate new solutions and ideas. While everyone is likely to agree with this as a concept, it’s incredibly difficult to achieve this in practice, because team members need to experience deep trust to challenge assumptions and introduce new ways of thinking.
What do you think is needed to shift the narrative about collaboration away from seeing it as something weak?
Shaheena: When we think about collaboration, the images around it and the way it’s represented, it seems like everyone is in the pits working together. But if you want to be more strategic, it’s about pulling together the best possible range of diversity in terms of thinking, not necessarily the best possible minds.
I’m a really big fan of pushing cognitive diversity as a core competency within leaders and encouraging brain trust. This helps you understand the value of diversity, so you bring it into your teams, tap into it, and harness it to come out with new approaches to solving problems. Collaboration is the only way to effectively problem solve, because you’re getting access to the widest possible range of perspectives.
Is there any element of intergenerational leadership in your work?
Shaheena: It comes through in different ways. You’ll have older leaders with over 20 years of experience and who are in their 40s or 50s and working with two, three or even four generations. Ethics and values is one of the areas where we see huge differences across the generations. The research about the growth of purpose ethics being a core driver of leadership is reinforced by an attrition of trust amongst leaders.
We are seeing an increasing level of activism in organisations, where individuals use their soft power to strengthen their voices. In my previous book Futureproof Your Career we talk about activism and the increasing overlap between professional and personal lives, particularly during COVID. There is an increasing trend for individuals to feel their organisations have values that are aligned to personal values.
This shift can be really challenging especially for older leaders who are used to keeping these two areas separate. I see tension between trying to do things the way business models have talked about and this very new way of working. On a pragmatic level, we have talent mobility and talent retention issues, so organisations have to become learning organisations. But to get to grips with emerging technology, whether it’s generative AI or other forms of tech, you need the resources and the individuals that would be able to share that. Everything’s shifting, even the definition of what it means to be a leader.
What does it mean to be a leader nowadays?
Shaheena: I ask this question a lot when I’m teaching myself and I get different responses from men and women. Men often talk about setting a vision, execution, and delivery, whereas women also talk about how to do it – showing care and support, creating space, and fostering creativity. As a leader, you are setting a course. But leaders can only be leaders if they have followers.
Being a leader is less about where we are going, it’s about how we get there. If we think about post pandemic and the impact of emerging tech, it’s hard to articulate what that’s going to mean for companies. People are worried about their jobs and what the future holds for them. But the more important question is, how do I get the best out of you while you’re worrying about all this? How do I ensure that you’re in an environment where you feel safe? How do I create a culture of psychological safety, where we can explore some of these ideas and come up with something? So the how is critical.
You’ve mentioned the importance of questioning everything, starting with the groundwork. How do you actually navigate and initiate fundamental change?
Shaheena: The big driver about questioning everything is curiosity. For me, curiosity is the seedbed of everything, whether you’re talking about being at the top of an organisation, informal leadership, being an educator, or being a parent. It’s about having curiosity. If there is one thing we recognize today, it’s that we can’t take anything for granted. We need to be open enough to think differently, have the willingness to question, and encourage ourselves to adopt the growth mindset. We also need to be pragmatic in our thinking because the best solutions come when you’ve got fixed boundaries. Real creativity hits when you get to the friction point.
As you learn to become more curious about people, you make amazing connections, because you shift from the job judgments and biases to wonder why they’re taking that position and why you’re reacting to that. That’s when the learning starts to unfold. As you develop that skill, it becomes almost effortless to switch in and out, like swimming or riding a bike.
How did you learn to become more curious?
Shaheena: As a child I was lucky to have parents who encouraged creative play, even though academic expectations were still there, I was able to keep a sense of play and curiosity. I think this is a lot harder today with expectations through education.
The other person I’d like to credit was Adrian Woods, my PhD supervisor and first boss, who taught me entrepreneurial thinking. Although I didn’t realise what he was doing at the time, I fell in love with the subject and I carried on in this field. Now I realise I teach a lot from his perspective. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from him and keep that legacy going.
They say, you teach what you need to learn the most. When you try to explain complicated issues such as diversity, you recognize there isn’t just one solution. I have the privilege of teaching it so I keep thinking about it. Putting it into practice is 10 times harder. I believe one of the core elements is having enough reflective thinking space to get to know yourself. You need to be willing to question and challenge yourself and be honest with yourself about what you could or would do differently. You have to be willing to stretch yourself and be ready to fail. Recognizing that ability to be self reflective and to learn from failure as part of development is huge. And all of those elements, which are often seen as soft, are absolutely critical.