Anyone who has had the briefest passing fantasy of “being in charge” has entertained thoughts of how things would finally be done “the right way,” i.e. “the way I think they should be.” It’s only natural to believe that we have something valuable to contribute, but leadership isn’t about making people do what you say, the way you say to do it. That is essentially coercion, and when “leadership” entails getting people to do things against their will, it’s on course for disaster.
Though leadership includes power that is used judiciously and with thought, leadership and power are not one and the same. In fact, the better a leader is, the less frequently he or she will have to call upon sheer power to get things done. I can say through experience gained by many years in leadership coaching that one of the most powerful skills any leader can have is the power to listen well.
Listening Signals Trust
In totalitarian societies like North Korea, the government constantly broadcasts propaganda extolling the sterling qualities of their dictator. Think about it: if someone really did have all those mind-boggling abilities, would they need to try to convince everyone 24/7?
Listening indicates that a leader trusts the intelligence, skills, and opinions of those on the team. Trust is the foundation for a genuine back-and-forth engagement that moves progress forward. On the flip side, leaders who don’t listen indicate that they don’t trust their team, giving team members little incentive to engage and give their best.
Leadership Ultimately Isn’t About You
The most outstanding leaders know that their leadership ultimately isn’t about them. It’s about moving their team and their organization forward. When they do that, the side effect may well be recognition. Everyone knows who Jeff Bezos is, for example, but it’s not because he actively broadcasts his accomplishments. It’s because his organization, Amazon, has fundamentally changed the way many people live their lives, and it did so with the toil of leaders, order pickers, phone support workers, and truck drivers.
Listening Well Is a Skill That Requires Practice
Just as playing the cello or having a powerful backhand in tennis is a skill that must be learned and then practiced, listening is something that requires practice. We’re surrounded by screens all the time – big and little screens, in our pockets, hung on walls, and sitting on our desks or car dashboards.
We need to turn off the screens to listen. Words are not all of communication. People’s facial expressions, body language, and general demeanor communicate massive amounts of information, and we can’t pick that up if we have our face in a screen of baseball scores or weather forecasts. Listen to the words, listen to what’s not being said, and discover the full story. You’ll make far fewer mistakes and miscalculations that way.
Seek Out the Quiet People
Some leaders actively seek out the quiet people during team meetings. Why? Because they’re often the ones who are busy taking in everything that’s being communicated, and not just preparing what they will say when it’s their turn to talk. Kit Crawford, owner of Clif Bar & Company says she strives to include people who don’t tend to speak up during meetings. Remember, rarely is the smartest person in the room the one doing all the talking.
Moreover, the people who have the most to contribute tend to speak up to ask questions, dig deeper, elicit more information. Be forewarned; when you ask the quiet observers to speak up, you may have to actively intervene to keep them from being interrupted by more garrulous team members. It is almost always worth the effort to do so.
Leadership coaching is about identifying and practicing the skills that result in making progress toward goals, and listening is one of the most – if not the most – important of those skills. We like to think we can multitask and listen to a team member while simultaneously watching a stock ticker or printing out a document, but real listening requires more. True listening may feel like it slows you down, but in the end, it saves time because it results in fewer mistakes and misunderstandings that have to be rectified.