Curiosity Creates the Leader

Curiosity may be school leaders’ number one trait to guide our schools through increasingly unpredictable waters.

Nov 7, 2023  |  By Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

As your school welcomes new trustees to your board each fall, NBOA welcomes new directors to our Board at the start of each fiscal year. New members provide a fresh eye on the association’s governance, share their diverse perspectives, and help ensure NBOA fulfills its mission on behalf of our independent school membership.  

During the director selection process, one of our new directors shared an essential skill for independent school leaders today that truly resonated with me. When asked what she thought was the most important quality for an NBOA board member, her answer was “to be curious.” I wholeheartedly agree with this simple yet powerful statement, particularly in light of the myriad of challenges our schools face today regarding financial health, enrollment and fundraising.  

Without curiosity, we are left to accept the status quo, which we know in many cases does not equip our schools with the tools to reimagine, reengineer and rethink the essential components of our business model and ensure the financial health of our schools in perpetuity. This is why I read with great interest the recent Fast Company article “How To Train Your Brain To Become More Curious,” by Stephanie Vozza, who writes about Scott Shigeoka’s new book “Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World."

Shigeoka describes curiosity as a “superpower.” I agree that our independent school trustees, administrative colleagues, and teams would be well served by employing healthy curiosity as we continuously seek to be more effective leaders. The article and book contend that curiosity is often considered a skill that infants and children have in abundance that somehow diminishes dramatically as we approach adulthood. Would our lower school and middle school faculty agree? According to research, this perception is false. Human curiosity actually grows throughout our lifetime, but it’s a muscle that requires exercise and strengthening to have a positive impact on our organizations. I would add that our organizations need to foster a culture that supports it.  

To strengthen your curiosity muscle, Shigeoka provides the acronym DIVE. 


“Start by letting go of your ABCs, which stand for assumptions, biases and certainty,” he says. Too often leaders and trustees feel pressured to have an answer based on past experiences, which may be precisely the kind of thinking that inhibits curiosity. I continue to recall one of the powerful lessons from the pandemic which forced us to reimagine teaching and learning in our schools when teachers and students were prevented from occupying the same space in the same way. What are some other “What ifs?” we have not considered, which curiosity could help us identify? 


Shigeoka suggests that we take a moment before a team meeting or one-on-one with a direct report and ask ourselves, “What questions do I have?” or “About what things could I learn more?” That intention will drive curiosity and a deeper discussion with potentially greater outcomes.  


While emotions often get a bad rap in the workplace, “when you don’t consider someone’s emotions, you devalue” that person, says Shigeoka. Therefore, curious leaders exercise empathy and explore why people react in the ways they do or why they may struggle. Additionally, all leaders should know “when you should be sharing and when you should be listening,” and strike a balance between the two.  


Finally, don’t hang out in the “shallow end.” Be willing to “go deep” and truly understand someone, even in the most difficult situations. Demonstrating curiosity about others allows you to develop more in-depth connections, which will strengthen your ability to work together, advance your school and confront challenges ahead. 

I’ve long thought that great leaders ask great questions. And great questions require a curious mind that can be exercised by taking a pause in our day, stepping out of the minutiae, and asking ourselves and those around us to think about possibilities that depart from conventional wisdom to help ensure our schools enjoy a prosperous future. What new questions will you be asking at your next meeting and why?  

Jeff Shields signature

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO



Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

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