Curiosity – do you use data; or does data use you?

Perhaps Rudyard Kipling summed up the notion of curiosity most succinctly when he wrote:

“I had six honest serving men. They taught me all I knew. Their names were: Where, What, When, Why, How and Who.”

Human beings have a drive – there’s some debate as to whether it’s an emotion or an  instinct, so I’ll stick with drive – to be ‘curious’ about our world; to wonder what it’s all about; to have a thirst for knowledge and understanding which goes beyond what we need to survive today, but is undoubtedly required to enable us to survive tomorrow.

In this article I want to try to understand what we mean by curiosity; explore the elements of curiosity; and finally attempt to understand the role of ‘intelligent leadership’ in supporting and enabling a ‘data-curious’ organisation.

Going back to medieval times curious people were regarded with great suspicion. Augustine, the early medieval theologian and philosopher, viewed curiosity as “vain inquisitiveness, dignified by the title that knowledge is science” and suggested that curious people “crave spectacle and a desire to be seen”.  People were supposed to know their place before god, and show humility rather than commit “the sin of pride that seeks to know things that are best left unknown”.

It’s a sad indictment on some schools that there seems exists a similar suspicion about those who show any curiosity or desire to better understand their world. Not as a consequence of any religious conviction but a suspicion that there must be some ulterior motive at work for anyone to seek to do anymore than is required to get the job done.

Yet curiosity has been the main impetus behind scientific discovery for centuries and millennia. A fact recognised by no less a person than Albert Einstein, who avowed, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge”.  Certainly the academic literature in this area would appear to confirm that there is a fundamental connection between curiosity, knowledge and discovery. With Lowenstein suggesting that, “Knowledge appears to prime the pump of curiosity”.

It is this fascinating connection between knowledge and curiosity that is at the heart of human development where – the more we know, the more we realise what we don’t know.

So how does curiosity manifest itself in modern organisations?

Does the phrase “data driven” mean anything to you? It’s this notion that an organisation must take account of the data when making decisions – particularly about the performance of the organisation or individuals.  However, the very phrase ‘data-driven’ gives the allusion of data being in the ‘driving seat’, where there exists a metrics powered approach to decision making, with the human element removed.

There is a real danger that a blind commitment to becoming  ‘data-led’ organisations leads us to make decisions that lack any reference to values, ethics, or reference to our acquired experience – or what we might better call human wisdom.

In this regard, there are two striking questions posed by T.S.Elliot, in his play The Rock, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Unknown to Elliot he presaged the identification of what is alternatively known as the ‘wisdom hierarchy’ or ‘knowledge pyramid’. This purports to represent the relationship between Data (raw facts) at the bottom of the pyramid; to Information (meaningful data); to Knowledge (understanding of information); to Wisdom (judgement using reference to values and experience) at the top of the pyramid.

Rather than seeing organisations as being ‘data-driven’ we should, then, instead, see them as being “values driven’ where we ‘use data’, as opposed to ‘data using us’.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum there are those who have neither the inclination to look at data – nor the curiosity to better understand their practice or the world around them.

As ever, there is a balance to be struck, but the key ingredient in making an organisation effective lies with the behaviour of the leaders.

For it is the role of leaders to model ‘curiosity’ and to ‘carry’ the value system against which data is generated, interpreted and understood.

Perhaps Charles Handy captured this most eloquently when he identified curiosity as being one of the key ingredients of ‘intelligent leadership’.

For ‘intelligent leadership’ appears to be a key element in successful organisations, where the leader promotes and exemplifies a ‘curiosity-driven’ culture, whereby the seeking of answers is part of a longer term process of generating knowledge to become a school  that is continually learning, adapting and improving.

Accordingly, regardless of the amount of ‘data’ generated, the masses of ‘information’ accumulated, and the associated ‘knowledge’ that is gained – it is the application of wisdom that will differentiate between the long-term success and failure of ‘curiosity-driven’ schools.

An eye for an eye – isn’t the best way to lead

I used to work with a headteacher who constantly bemoaned the fact that their teachers “Wouldn’t know what innovation was if they bumped into it in the street”. The ironic thing about this was that this was someone who would harangue any individual who made the slightest mistake.  Was it any wonder that people learned to keep their heads down and stayed within their ‘comfort zone’? I genuinely felt sorry for the people who worked in that school.

Yet leaders are under immense pressure these days to deliver improved outcomes with fewer and fewer resources. The only solution to this challenge is to find innovative ways of working. For innovation to take place people need to operate within a culture where they have the confidence and necessary ‘space’ to take risks. This ‘space for innovation’ requires leaders to establish a culture of forgiveness. In the course of this essay I intend to define forgiveness; explore why leaders find it difficult to forgive; explain why and how forgiveness can enhance an organisation; and, finally conclude by arguing that forgiveness is a fundamental leadership virtue, which can have a dramatic impact upon the well-being of the leaders and staff, and, in so doing, the effectiveness of the entire organisation.

The dictionary definition of forgiveness is “To grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt”. Forgiveness further relates to renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger due to a perceived offense, disagreement or mistake.

It is this latter cause, the notion of forgiving a mistake, which carries with it the most challenging element for modern leaders who are committed to creating a ‘mistake free’, ‘results driven’, ‘outcome focused’, ‘high performing’ environment.

Yet when leaders establish boundaries where employees know that they will not be forgiven if they make a mistake, then the outcome is quite the opposite from what is intended. For what is apparent from current research is that if people feel that they will not be forgiven for making mistakes, they will tend to operate well within those boundaries – even if the leader only implies these boundaries.

In the modern workplace, with ever-reducing budgets, greater organisational scrutiny, public accountability, and plummeting numbers of people to do ever-increasing amounts of work, the pressure to closely manage the performance of employees has never been greater.

This leads many managers towards a form of behaviour that actually has a ‘diminishing’ impact upon their employees, but also upon themselves, and organisational effectiveness. The leadership behaviour I am referring to is one that is intolerant of mistakes, and characterised by punishment and retribution.

Traditional justice has often been based upon the law of retribution, i.e. and eye for an eye. Mahatama Ghandi’s response to this notion of equivalency was to observe that “An eye – for an eye – for an eye…..ends in making everybody blind”.

Employees who are forgiven for mistakes, and who work in a forgiving culture are much more likely to be creative, take appropriate risks, and learn and grow their own leadership capabilities. For forgiveness helps people to have a more positive outlook on the future and much less likely to hide mistakes or transgressions.

An organisation that promotes forgiveness will be engaged in positive and constructive behaviour, which eventually increases the effectiveness of the organisation. Yet a culture of forgiveness should not be taken to mean a ‘free for all’, ‘do as you feel’ approach to work, nor does it imply that everything can be forgiven, e.g. sexual harassment.

Modern organisations are complex places with inter-relationships and team-based working creating a combustible environment for conflict and dispute, especially when fuelled by the budgetary challenges facing organisations. Where a leader cannot forgive and pardon a transgression, then the conflict is left unresolved and creates a drag on the organisation. In turn, this revenge behaviour from the leader sucks the confidence and vibrancy out of any organisation.

At a time when many organisations are attempting to reduce the levels of stress, a simple step might be to set about creating a culture of forgiveness where it becomes possible to use mistakes, faults, and breakdowns as useful learning opportunities for all involved. Leaders have the power to profoundly influence this culture within an organisation through the promotion of a forgiving culture – perhaps more so than any other feature of their leadership behaviour. Where this culture of restitution exists in place of one of revenge it can overcome any feelings of bitterness and hate, the fertile conditions for stress, and enable people to make an extra effort – with all the positive consequences that this can have upon the bottom-line. Such a culture enables authentic, courageous and open conversations – where both the leader and the employee understand that forgiveness can be a two-way process.

It’s this final element that is of great significance in the current stress-inducing environment, i.e. the welfare of the leaders themselves. Once again we find through research that the very act of forgiveness has a positive effect upon the well being of the leader. Instead of nursing grievances and grudges they can move on and focus upon facilitating excellence and improvement – the job that they are paid to do.

Far from ‘forgiveness’ being a sign of leadership weakness or timidity then, it is, in actual fact, a virtue and a real indication of fortitude and self-confidence. Never has it been more important for leaders to demonstrate forgiveness and create the necessary ‘space for innovation’ for the kind of fundamental changes that are necessary to successfully address our current challenges.

I’ll leave the last words with Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest exponent of forgiveness in modern times:

“Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear, that’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”

We don’t need no education

Thirty-three years ago I volunteered to undertake my final student teaching placement in the Secure Wing of a children’s residential home.  One of my abiding memories from that experience was waiting to go into a classroom when ten boys started to sing – in what we would now call a ‘flash mob’ – the haunting track from Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’:

We don’t need no education
We dont need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.

It was the intensity of the first line that remains with me to this day “We don’t need no education”, and which came to mind again when reading the results from the Sutton Trust which drew the correlation between poverty and poor reading skills – especially for boys.

During my experience at the Secure Wing, which housed boys under the age of 16 who were ‘locked up’ for committing serious offences, I had the privilege of being able to accompany ‘John’ on a rare home visit.  John was a boy who had real ‘potential’ – he was lively, curious, articulate and a natural leader, but who had been failed by the system and by education in particular.

These were all boys who were passionately antagonistic to education.  They didn’t see any point or benefit to be had from education and felt isolated from the purpose of schooling from the very outset.  Most were able to describe their common journey through primary and secondary schools that involved their humiliation, regular exclusions and sense of isolation, which they only overcame through associating with others who had suffered from similar experiences and backgrounds.

So why is it – 33 years later – that schools still do so badly in making a positive impact upon such children?  How come – in this day and age –there are so many boys who leave primary school with negligible reading skills which prevent them from accessing the secondary school curriculum and leads to their inevitable isolation, probable exclusions and negative destinations?

Research tells us that interventions in children’s early years make a real difference, but that if they are not maintained that their benefit rapidly decays.  We know that interventions focused upon helping parents to be actively involved in their children’s learning can make a real difference in attainment. However, we also know that if parents and young people believe that they can have a positive influence upon the future through their own efforts and actions – then young people will do well at school.

It’s this last factor that proves to be such a challenge to schools and others who can put a variety of well-intentioned interventions in place to support parents and young people but which inevitably focuses upon the symptoms – rather than the root causes of poor attainment. It’s this notion of self-efficacy – or belief in oneself to succeed – that is a major determinant in academic success.  If a child comes from a family where the overwhelming belief is that the future is dependent upon others and that their own efforts will have a minimal effect, then what possible incentive could there be to apply yourself to study or to work.

Set against this self–determining (or should that read self- defeating) element are the expectations of others in the system and the impact they have on those who do not share their same sense of self-belief. Consider the child who starts primary school and whose clothes smell dirty from the outset and whose mother can’t engage in conversation with other mothers at the school gates.   How long will it be before other children recognise these differences and start to call them names?  How long will it be before they are placed in the ‘triangles’ group for every learning activity? How long before their mother is called into school to discuss their child’s inability to concentrate, or their regular outbursts against their classmates or teacher who was merely asking them to complete a simple task?

And so it goes on. “Perhaps it might be best for John to stay at home in the afternoons until he has settled down”. “We’ll try to get an auxiliary to sit with him during class time but we don’t have one in the class all of the time”. “I’m left with no alternative but to exclude John for a week and ask that you bring him back to school on Monday morning at 9.30am for a meeting where we will set out our conditions for readmission”. “I’m afraid we can’t let John go on the school trip as he is a risk to himself and others”.

Yet before this all starts to sound like a diatribe against schools – consider the position of teachers and head teachers who have to satisfy the quite reasonable expectations of other parents; parents who hear on a daily basis what ‘John’ has been up to today; parents who find out how the learning experience of their child was disrupted yet again because the headteacher had to be called. I’ve been at the sharp end of these concerns as a teacher, as a headteacher and as a Director of Education – and there are no simple remedies.

Yet I’ve also seen teachers and head teachers who come from a different starting point; teachers who establish unambiguous and challenging expectations for ALL children regardless of background; and headteachers who are NOT prepared to give up on children – regardless of their behaviour.

Schools that claim their children and their families as their own are the schools that transform the lives of the young people and their parents respectively, and are the schools who challenge the self-fulfilling expectation that poverty leads to poor attainment.

On the edge of being uncomfortably precise

On the edge of being uncomfortably precise

Edges, serif and sans serif

The small flourishes that emanate

From the tails of letters

Betray his love of detail

Working the stone

Working his memory

A word is not a word

It is a lifetime

An expression of the person

The careful spacing

The precise formality

Does it spill into his life

Or vice versa?



He lies,

On the edge

Of being uncomfortably




                                      Dedicated to Alan Forrest – letter carver

A Marching Band, Walking

A Marching Band, Walking

I saw a Marching band, walking

Walking across St Andrew’s Square

Heads bowed into the North Sea wind

Instruments sheathed and protected

Drums dragged behind on reluctant wheels,

Save for the Sousaphone,

Which wrapped its vibrant coils around

A fat man with no hiding place.

Up front the conductor led the way

His umbrella holding a high note

The bedraggled ensemble stumbling into step

Following his direction – if not his enthusiasm.

Yet strip off the dull jackets

Release the brass and drums

Let them join in lines of hope

Break out the uniforms

Keep time,

Share their music

Let the trumpets call

But meantime,

Just let them safely cross the road

Without losing the fat man

And his Sousaphone.

Beech Walk

Beech Walk

Tread softly on summers past
Where glorious days return to earth
To lay their pile carpet for our dreams
That twist and turn
Between the sleeping giants
Of our mind.
The snow-shackled spring
Suppressed and frustrated
By winter’s stubborn grip
Gathers up its life force
Squeezing through the stranglehold
Seeping from every open pore.
The black beech, dark and wet
Flex and break their chains
Connected by the green fuse
They ignite in unison
Their neon translucence
Fired by a shafting morning sun.
Freshening the eye
Lightening the heart
Opening the mind for times to come
Until, they too
Must find their place
Earth to earth.
Amongst the mouldering corpses
Of summers’ brethren
That cushion
The tread,
Of our own
Beech Walk.

Enlightened Leadership

I met with a couple of colleagues last week and explored the concept of the ‘enlightened’ Scottish leader.

We brainstormed a number of  characteristics/attributes of the ‘enlightened’ leader.  I’ve tried to put them into coherent groups and them given each group a related Value.  The seven values (would you believe it) are:

Integrity; Openness; Commitment; Vigour; Compassion; Authority; and Judgement

This is very much work in progress but the associated dictionary definitions provide some semblance of logic and at least mean something to me.  Comments welcome.



Honesty – truthfulness, sincerity

Self-critical –  capable of criticising oneself objectively.

Pragmatic – behaviour that is dictated more by practical consequences than by theory or dogma

Independent – Free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority

Moral Courage – the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, or discouragement.

Transparency – operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed



Free thinking – inclined to forms one’s own opinions rather than depend upon authority; exhibiting boldness of speculation; skeptical of authority.

Enlightened – having or showing a rational, modern, and well-informed outlook

Tolerant – able to tolerate the beliefs, actions, opinions, etc., of others

Innovative – to renew or improve things



Hardworking – characterised by hard work and perseverance

Service – the action of helping or doing work for someone.

Duty – refer to what one feels bound or obliged to do.

Resilient – recovering readily from adversity



Aspirational – strong desire and ambition

Energetic – possessing, exerting, or displaying energy

Dynamic – pertaining to or characterized by energy or effective action; vigorously active or forceful; energetic

Positive – tending to emphasize what is good or laudable; constructive



Humility – is the quality of being modest and respectful.

Co-operative – marked by willingness to cooperate

Compassionate – feeling or showing compassion; sympathetic

Complementary – combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasize each other’s qualities.

Generous – liberal in giving or sharing; unselfish; free from meanness or pettiness; magnanimous.

Supportive – providing encouragement or emotional help.

Receptive – ready and willing to receive favourably

Humour – the faculty of perceiving and expressing or appreciating what is amusing



Competitive – having a strong desire to succeed.

Decisive – having or showing the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively

Confident – having strong belief or full assurance; sure

Determined – marked by or showing determination; resolute

Passion – a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept



Long-term – lasting, staying, or extending over a long time

Rational – having or exercising reason, sound judgment, or good sense:

Learner – someone who learns or takes up knowledge or beliefs

Considered – thought about or decided upon with care

Innovation Ready – an open letter to parents

Dear Fellow Parent

Do you want your child to get a good job when they leave school? Do you want your child to be attractive to prospective employers? Do you want your child to succeed and be off your hands by the time they’re 25 years old? – of course you do.

Let’s be honest, after we’ve accepted that we want our children to be happy and healthy, the over-riding concern that most of us parents have – especially as they move towards the end of their schooling – is that our children are on ‘track’ towards a ‘good job’.

So how do most of us respond to this desire? Simple – we take what worked for us – or what seemed to work for most other people – and encourage them to succeed at school. And what does that success look like? Again a simple answer – it’s about the accumulation of qualifications at as high a level as possible in order to gain entry to university and get on ‘track’ towards that dream job – and associated financial security (for them and us!).

Well I hesitate to tell you this but you’d better think again. As the father of two sons – who both succeeded in terms of academic attainment at school – who then both dropped out of their respective university courses – I have some real life experience.

I’m pleased to report that both of them have now made their way in the world and I’d like to think that their success is down to their intrinsic drive, resilience and innovative ability over any academic success that they had at school.

I am not for one minute suggesting that academic success at school should be downplayed – quite the reverse in fact. But what I am saying is that the manner in which we engage young people in learning needs to prepare them much better for the world which they will inhabit over their working lives of fifty or sixty years.

Tony Wagner, Co- Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, argues that schools are not “adding the value and teaching the skills that matter most in the marketplace.”

In a recent interview Wagner quoted an executive who complained: “We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.”

Wagner argues that the key quality that employers are looking for in employees is the capacity to innovate. This is backed up by even the most cursory examination of some of the qualities global companies are looking for in new starts. For example, Rolls Royce looks for people who can succeed in “complex, innovative and highly challenging environments”; Deutsche Bank is seeking interns who can “provide fresh, innovative thinking”’ and Shell wants people with “intellectual, analytical and creative ability…”. As one might expect Google seeks people who can, through innovation, take things that work well and improve upon them in unexpected ways.” And IBM want “people who have skills, creativity and passion..”.

And the common factor in all of these cases is clearly a requirement that prospective employees have a capacity to operate effectively in an innovative environment.

Such firms take academic success for granted – this is not a matter of knowledge taking a backseat to the skills agenda – but what is clear is that the goal of education should not be to make every child “university ready” but – as Wagner calls it “innovation ready” i.e. ready to add value to whatever they do.

The word innovation derives from the Latin word innovates, which is the noun form of innovare “to renew or change”.

The capacity to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are at the heart of innovation. Yet consider how often these qualities are utilised or developed in schools especially as the high stakes examinations come into view.

This is why what’s happening in English education and Scottish education makes for such a fascinating comparison.  Without wishing to enter into any political territory it seems clear to anyone looking in at the English curriculum – via the encouragement and direction of Mr. Michael Gove (one of Scotland’s exiles) – is modeling itself upon an episode of the ‘Good Old Days’. Where the conviction, certainty and ideological faith regarding the place of knowledge overrides any reference to the modern skillsets that are essential in the modern workplace.

That’s why Scotland, in common with countries such as Finland, Australia, India and Singapore (the latter one of the highest performing education systems in the world in terms of academic attainment) is on the right lines with Curriculum for Excellence – with its wider focus on developing personal capacities in addition to the acquisition of knowledge, especially the capacity to think independently, creatively and collaboratively.

Yet this is still an enormous jump for so many of us who have lived in a more secure and certain environment where one’s eventual place in the job market was directly related to how many Highers we achieved and the quality of the degree we were awarded.

I’ll know we have changed when headteachers start to receive complaints from parents that their child is not being encouraged to think creatively or to develop the innovative skills they will require in the future – as opposed to the amount of homework being issued to an eight year old child.

Elements of Innovation

ResearchIng the literature on innovation it seems to me that it’s possible to break the innovation process into three fundamental elements:

1. Looking Differently

2. Making unexpected connections

3. Trying – Failing – Perfecting

 1. Looking Differently

The innovator steps outside the normal viewpoint and looks at a problem from a variety of perspectives, disciplines or fields of knowledge/practice.

2. Making unexpected connections

The innovator makes links between these various perspectives to create new solutions.

3. Trying – Failing – Perfecting

The innovator tests their idea, learns from the results, and modifies the solution until it consistently achieves the desired result.