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The listening leader

Many definitions of leadership reference the ability to listen effectively to others, here is an example of the content of this step.
Hear what people are really saying written on notebook. Active listening technique concept.

Many definitions of leadership reference the ability to listen effectively to others, and certainly this skill came up a lot with students of one of our other leadership courses, when asked about some of the top qualities of a leader.

It may of course seem obvious, but a challenge with leadership is that often there is a belief that you have to be the one to make all the decisions. You have to have the best judgment, you need to take all the responsibility on your shoulders, and therefore you have to be on your toes and thinking about solutions – leaving less space for listening potentially.

We looked at the more modern or recent approaches in terms of leadership, and we have seen that vulnerability is often now seen as a positive (none of us really trust someone who seems too perfect), as is empowering and collaboration. Whilst the leader should always take responsibility if something goes wrong, perhaps unfairly I would say they should not take the responsibility when things go right. It will naturally flow to them. Taking responsibility for team failures though is making a stand against a blame culture, which is unhealthy, and it allows others to not work in fear and therefore be more relaxed and innovative at the same time.

So where does listening come in?

Listening to experts is sensible. I remember a comment early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, that it was just like in all the movies: the scientists give advice and the politicians ignore it, and from there it all goes downhill!

Listening to team members, stakeholders and partners is not only respectful, but it can inspire you with ideas you would not have had otherwise. As research shows, diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams, bringing innovation and growth that could not otherwise be achieved. As a leader do I want that greater innovation? Or do I simply want my ideas to be taken on, even if sub-standard versus what could be possible? Do I want my (mental) world to stay narrow, or do I want to continue developing and learning throughout my life? If I don’t listen actively to others, and take on board their ideas, then I will never develop my full potential, in addition to blocking their own development.

Listening involves more than just listening too. Besides having to be really centered in the present, which we’ll come onto in the next podcast, we have to ensure the person we are listening to actually feels listened to. Sometimes our minds race so fast, we feel we have taken in what the other person has said, and start to respond. There are a couple of issues here. If we have already been preparing what to say, then we may have actually missed the full communication from their side (as Stephen Covey said, ”Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”). But very importantly, the other person will often feel we have come in so quickly that we can’t possibly have been listening. People tend to feel their thoughts and ideas are original, so they won’t accept that someone understood them so quickly.

The better approach for a leader is to 1) ask some genuine questions of understanding, to ensure we haven’t actually missed or misunderstood something, and 2) repeat back what we have understood which serves a similar purpose, but also makes the other person really feel heard. The more literal we play back to the other person, the better. They chose their words for a purpose, and don’t require ‘interpretation.’

Peter Nulty says, “Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable — and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.” This is another benefit of course – like an early-warning system.

Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” This is another great insight, demonstrating that it’s not easy – otherwise we’d all be great at it. It takes courage and determination to be a good listener. This comes from a) inadequacies we feel about ourselves, where we are lacking in confidence and therefore feel the need to speak in order to somehow ‘prove’ ourselves, and b) the responsibility we face once we have heard what others have to say, to react and act on what we have heard – even if it may be scary (in terms of pointing to our own deficiencies), or open us up to the unfamiliar (of which we are also often afraid).

So listening actually can bring us face to face with fear, which can be one of the greatest obstacles for leaders. I talk more about fear and its management in Week 3 of the previous (first) course on applied leadership and self-development.

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Applied Leadership and Self-Development: Expanding the Toolkit

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