Contrary to what many might think (and many practice), the most important job of a leader is not to speak, preach, direct or advise….
The most important job of a leader is to listen.
In a recent interview I did with management guru Tom Peters, he revealed the four most important words in business leadership are “What do you think?”
Tom said listening should be a leader’s full-time profession. They should be the professional gatherer of input, ideas, feedback, opinion, perspective and personal experience in order to make informed, well-thought-through leadership decisions.
Richard Branson once said to me, “If you are a good leader, you are a good listener.”
This is true for everyone in every aspect of life, but it’s one of the most neglected skills I observe every day. I am always fascinated by how poorly people listen. There are many ways people invalidate and hurt their relations with others by their lack of listening skill.
Here are a few…
The Offenders. These people are the worst. They make it clear you are so unimportant or they are so bored by your conversation that they look at something else while you talk (BlackBerry, e-mail, brochure, someone else over your shoulder, anywhere else but directly in your eyes).
It is well-known that one of Bill Clinton’s most compelling traits is his ability to listen deeply to whoever is speaking to him, no matter who else or how many other people are in the room. It is said that if he is talking with someone, he won’t even break eye contact to reach for his glass of water. He will feel his way to it, but he will never, ever break eye contact. He treats you and makes you feel like the most important person on the planet when you are talking. We all should strive to be that influential.
The Intruders. These are people who can’t be bothered to let you finish your sentence before cutting you off, figuring out (falsely) what you were going to say, and giving your their interrupted opinion.
The Blockheads. They spend the conversation thinking about what to say rather than listening at all. They will scan the conversation, lock onto a point they want to make and shut off hearing you at all so they don’t lose their mental point—making it obvious with their facial expressions and body language that they are impatiently waiting for you to (finally) take a breath or end your (dang) sentence. They then respond, and you realize they didn’t listen to you and missed the point completely.
The Egoists. Instead of listening to you and caring about your story, your feelings and experience, they “me-ize” your comments and respond with their similar experience, problem or yarn.
These are the most fun to watch (and most common), as people will volley from person to person changing the conversation to them rather than listening and engaging the original storyteller.
Recognize anyone in the above? Friends, colleagues, family members—yourself?
Jim Collins said this of his mentor, one of the most respected leadership authorities and the father of modern management theory, Peter F. Drucker:
“He was driven not by the desire to say something, but by the desire to learn something from every student he met—and that is why he became one of the most influential teachers most of us have ever known.”
If you want to be a person of great influence, if you want to teach people, motivate them, inspire them and lead them, then learn to listen.
1. Talk less. Listen more.
2. Make fewer statements. Ask more questions.
Start with Tom’s suggestion: “What do you think?”
I challenge you to ask that question at least a dozen times before the week is out.
You might also follow that up with a couple of other questions, like:
“How do you mean?”
“Why do you say that?”
“How do you feel about that?”
Oh, and then really LISTEN UP! Don’t be an Offender, Intruder, Blockhead or Egoist. Listen so intently that the other person feels they are the most important person in the world while they are speaking.
What do you do to make people feel heard, validated and important while they are talking? What are your best listening practices? Share your ideas in the comments below.
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