Exploratory Leadership: What It Is and How to Develop It

You don’t have to have a team of people working under you to be a leader. You are the leader of your own life, and as such, learning how to lead is very important — both personally and professionally.

Why? Because so much is unknown today. Thousands of cutting-edge apps and new businesses are released daily, creating more competition and saturating marketplaces. All industries are at risk of being disrupted, which means on any given day you can expect to have to pivot in order to remain competitive and relevant.

Don’t let this cause undue stress.

This is an opportunity.

Learning how to navigate constant change and uncertainty will equip you with the tools you need to stay afloat. Motivating yourself and others to embrace what’s not known (i.e. what new apps will be released tomorrow or which companies will begin to offer lower pricing than yours) and discover more possibilities is an art we call Exploratory Leadership. This practice focuses on taking small steps even when you don’t have answers, and looking at ebbs and flows as learnings instead of failures.

An exploratory leader is someone who is not only aware of, but comfortable with, the fact that she doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring. To an Exploratory Leader, tomorrow’s uncertainty brings possibility, not fear.

Partner at Merchant and Gould, a global leader in intellectual property law, Studio/E member Heather Kliebenstein is an exploratory leader. We mention Heather because her intense curiosity becomes exceptionally powerful in her field, one which is primarily populated by “knowing experts.” She asks the questions others are afraid to ask, and she refuses to do things the way they’ve always been done. Her steadfast approach to continuous learning and questioning is undoubtedly why she’s so skilled at problem solving and strategizing, and helping lead Merchant and Gould to a vital future.

Famed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer is an exploratory leader, too. He has tried all sorts of new endeavors throughout his decades-long career in the hospitality industry, including the controversial Hospitality Included initiative (the concept of including gratuity in dining bills) and the simple hot dog cart in the park, which turned into the now famous Shake Shack burger concept. What differentiates Meyers from his competitors is that while other restaurateurs focused on providing the very best food and drink, Danny’s motivation was to ensure people left his restaurants happier than they were when they came — including his staff.

A commitment to providing the highest quality food and beverage is smart because it’s what has worked in the past. It is the obvious move. But the radical idea of prioritizing people over food and putting an emphasis on hospitality, which came with a lot of unknowns at first (will the food fall flat? do people even care about good service?), ended up providing Danny and his various teams with so much opportunity.

Meyer’s food, by the way, is as good, if not better than, the next guy’s. The difference is his acute awareness of what superior hospitality can do for a restaurant experience, and what it means to prioritize people over products.

Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton had the same motivations as Danny Meyer: to care for his people. Which is why, though the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–1917 was technically a failure, as he didn’t end up crossing the 2,000-mile Antarctic continent like he set out to do, he is regarded as one of the greatest leaders of his time. In fact, Shackleton’s commendable accomplishment of bringing all of his men home after a shortage of food, months of being stuck in the ice, a crushed ship, and countless other unforeseen circumstances, plays a big role in our passion for learning to navigate the unknown and teaching others to do the same.

What Heather Kliebenstein, Danny Meyer, and Ernest Shackleton have in common is that their priorities look different than their competitors’ do, and by making moves with uncertain results, they take considerable yet calculated risks. Not all of their endeavors are successful, but the ones that are rise above the rest. This is because they know how to explore, launch, navigate, and then explore some more. They are exploratory leaders.

Today, Danny Meyer is CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, has dozens of restaurants to his name, one of which is now public, and is often recognized for his leadership and business achievements. Heather Kliebenstein is not just a partner at Merchant and Gould — she was the first female partner who happened to double as a mother, as well as the first female litigation group chair in the firm’s century-plus history. She has broken ground not only for herself and her company, but for female attorneys across the globe. And Shackleton? He was knighted by King Edward IV in 1909 upon his return from one of his polar expeditions.

Learning how to navigate in the unknown like these exploratory leaders is not about seeking certainty (that, in fact, is an impossibility in the unknown) but rather it’s about seeking clarity. And you find clarity by getting out and doing that thing you are curious about. This article in Sidetracked Magazine paints a beautiful portrait of exploration as it applies to curiosity: “Adventure,” author Andrew Mazibrada says, “allows us to see through the prism of our daily existence and understand with crystal clarity who we really are.”

Less concerned with discovering new territories than a new state of mind, exploration is a tool and a practice — and one everyone needs to adopt. So when your competitors are panicking because the rules changed before they were even written, you can be out in the unknown searching for opportunities.

This is Exploratory Leadership. This is what you should be developing.

Here are ways to begin:

  1. Act with the Mindset of a curious explorer: take small steps, learn from them, make changes, repeat. As Ryan Holiday says in his brilliant book, The Obstacle Is The Way: “Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments.” Keep in motion, be open to learning, and you will figure it out.
  2. Make a commitment to continuous learning. Listen to a new podcast. Take an online course. Do you typically read fiction? Pick up a nonfiction book. Go to a coffee shop on the other side of town. Attend an event by yourself. Be curious. Ask questions. Join a learning community. Befriend people who look, think, act, move, and explore in ways you don’t.
  3. Break up with your need for certainty — it’s not possible in the unknown. Instead, strive for clarity.
  4. Learn how to identify when you’re in the unknown versus in the known. Sometimes your body will give you physical signs that you are approaching the unknown. Pay attention to the way your body reacts, then begin to recognize your body’s message that it’s time to put on your explorer’s gear and navigate your way through uncertainty. Awareness begets clarity.

You can do this. No, wait — you have to do this.

Godspeed, explorers.

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Would you like to learn more about Exploratory Leadership? Check out our content library for more articles on the topic. If you’re interested in joining a Studio/E program in pursuit of becoming an exploratory leader, please visit this webpage.

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