Develop Leadership by Listening

You Are Not Listening” by Rick and Brenda Beerhorst, licensed under CC 2.0

Telling people to do something is important. It’s also important to know what to say. When people ask me for tips on what to do in a leadership scenario, one of the main questions I ask is “what do your followers want?” I don’t mean want as in material goods or money, I mean want as in the deeper values and motives that are driving them. When a leader doesn’t know how their followers feel and what they want, then the leader has little information to advise them on how to lead those particular people. Even worse, a lot of leaders think they know what their followers want.

To influence a variety of people in a variety of situations (magic phrase), you need to understand their deepest values and wants. So here’s the magic skill leaders need:


How can anyone possibly understand their followers without listening to them? And if one doesn’t understand their followers, how would one hope to influence them without using coercion and power? So let’s examine how we can develop your leadership skills using the four parts of leadership (from the self, among others, across situations, for outcomes):

Self – Practice listening. Listening to people is the easiest way to understand them. Ironically, deep listening and attentiveness is scarce in workplaces – so scarce that most people I know often have to deliberate at length about whether or not to tell something to their boss. A leader that doesn’t listen to his/her people probably doesn’t understand their wants. Therefore, that leader is likely to have a hard time influencing his/her followers. Therefore, that leader is more likely to be a poor leader.

I want to clarify here that it’s not enough to just listen. You need to really listen. When someone is talking to you, you shouldn’t be thinking about what you’re going to say in response. You shouldn’t be thinking about how to counter their points or push through with your ideas like a hedgehog balling itself up and advancing stubbornly. When someone is talking to you, you need to engage all of your mental effort and attention towards the person that is talking to you. Do you notice their vocal inflexions, facial expressions, body language, and the actual content of communication?

Many people spend a lifetime as horrible listeners. If you can master this one skill of listening, you will be lightyears ahead of those leaders who don’t know how to listen because you at least know how to collect information from your followers about how you should lead them.

People – Practice being approachable. People are more likely to talk to you and give you information about their thoughts and wants if they trust you. People are more likely to confide in you if they know you don’t judge them when they reveal their deepest values and secrets.

An easy way to learn how to be an approachable listener is by truly caring deeply and compassionately for the well-being of your followers. If you do, then you will find it easier to listen to them deeply. In turn, this will make people open up to you. As a catch-22, I also find that when you listen deeply to people repeatedly, you start to care more about them because you feel closer to them.

Even when it seems like someone is done talking, see if they have more to say. Don’t immediately jump into your own thoughts. Often, when someone comes to me and says something quickly, and I give them my full attention, they then elaborate and tell me things like how they’re feeling about what they just said, or why they said what they said. These pieces of information are like golden ingots just lying there in the open – they are also precious bits of personal information. You must respect and guard them.

Situations – Practice listening under the right conditions. If you want to better understand your followers by listening to them, you need the right conditions. As mentioned earlier, first you need to be a good listener. Then, you need to be approachable and trusted with information. Next, you need the winning conditions for information exchange.

People are more likely to give you information on what drives them and what they value only in private settings. Also, you cannot simply probe them when they’re not ready to divulge. This will make them close themselves from you like disturbed clams. Moreover, people are more likely to have deep conversations with you when they’re in the mood to talk – this means that energy and positivity is important. No wonder lots of good conversations occur on the golf course, or at the bar after work. When people are exhausted, are at the end of their work day, are stressed and/or emotionally heightened, you might want to be careful about being probing. The lesson here is that leadership is not a set of behaviours – it’s a way of thinking. At all times you should be questioning yourself on whether or not the situation calls for a particular action.

Outcomes – Practice listening for the right reasons. This brings us right back to my post on ethics. If you’re listening to glean information to be used against people and the organization, you will lose the trust of your followers over the long term. If you use information to increase personal gain while leaving others stuck behind, you will lose trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is important because it’s hard to earn. If you work in strategic marketing, you know that one unethical misstep can destroy a personal or corporate brand. Tiger Woods and Nike come to mind. As a leader you have to manage your personal brand so that you can have a lot of trustworthiness and loyalty over the long term. This will allow you to more easily and consistently influence a variety of people in a variety of situations (magic rule). This obviously makes a better leader.

Listening is a basic skill, but like directing, it has multiple facets and is actually complex to master. Many people spend a lifetime not knowing how to listen. I’ve had several bosses that just couldn’t give me five seconds of their undivided attention without interrupting me to tell me what they think I ought to do. The catch-22 here is that warm hearted, ethical people tend to care enough about people to actually become good listeners in the first place. Ethical leaders earn the trustworthiness required to be approachable enough for people to confide in them.

If you’re finding it impossible to just listen to your people, how will you get yourself to just listen attentively?


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