Great Leaders Listen First & Speak Last
- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 9 of 24 -
Empathy is a vital leadership trait because it ensures one is leading by inspiring action rather than commanding action. Simply, leaders must appeal to people's hearts more than their minds and empathy is the engine that fuels such a model. Accordingly, great leaders are dealers in empathy because without it one will be leading from the mind rather than the heart - a surefire way to destroy value, engagement, and culture. And, perhaps no better gateway to empathy exists than that of engaged listening. Indeed, while self-proclaimed leaders speak first, real leaders speak last. A manager tells their staff the answer, a true leader brings people together to collectively find the answer. As Jack Welch noted, "I have no clue about toasters or airplanes but I'm very good at finding people who do." Similarly, leaders don't need to know more than their employees to effectively lead them. Accordingly, great communication is first and foremost a two-way street, meaning both outbound and inbound communication is vital. Otherwise, it’s commanding, not communicating. As such, a great leader has the emotional awareness to understand that successful communication is oftentimes at least 90 percent listening (inbound communication) and less than 10 percent speaking (outbound communication). Together, this ratio of listening to speaking ensures empathy rather than apathy and leadership that inspires rather than commands action.
Great listening is perhaps the most underleveraged yet greatest ROI bringing skillset any leader can leverage. In today’s landscape where people value their autonomy, any mindset that doesn’t embrace listening will be the eventual demise of the enterprise. When one is an individual contributor, they try to be the expert by having all the answers. However, a leader must instead have all the questions. Unfortunately, a majority of individuals, leaders included, don’t listen but instead wait to speak. Simply, human beings are generally not good at listening. To begin, leaders must have the emotional awareness to seek out and understand other’s perspectives. Simply, seek to understand before you hope to be understood. Remember, good ideas can come from the most unlikely sources. As Jim Collins found, “Engage in dialogue and debate, not coercion.” If everyone around the table sits silent while the leader pontificates there are indeed some serious communication problems. Great leaders must instead set a culture that is open to debate, where new ideas can and should come from anyone. Leaders must (1) ensure everyone has an obligation to respectfully dissent, (2) accept ideas from bottoms-up, (3) give the credit where credit is due, and (4) have the emotional awareness to understand other’s perspective. As Henry Ford found, if there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get to the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.
In addition, by seeking out other’s opinions and having an unbiased view as they seek to understand, leaders gain trust exponentially faster than by telling others what to do. As Dale Carnegie noted, “To be interesting, be interested. You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. If you want people to be interested in you, you must first be interested in them.” This notion only happens via engaged listening, meaning it’s often better to ask questions rather than dispense answers.
For example, when Satya Nadella became the CEO of Microsoft in 2014, he embarked on an ambitious transformation journey spearheaded by a change in culture. Microsoft's culture at the time was one of silos and internal competition – one of showing up as the smartest person in the room, speaking first, asking questions second. Nadella transformed the culture into one of learning and listening. Instead of showing up with a fixed mindset, where your role was to be the smartest person in the room, Nadella promoted a culture where your role was to listen, to learn and to bring out the best in people. The results speak for themselves as the stock price has increased by ~2.5X since Nadella took the helm at Microsoft. As such, leaders need not always be the creators or originators. In fact, it’s just as likely that they are not. Instead, great leaders discard the status quo in exchange for a mindset of continuous improvement, change, and transparency. As such, leaders must improve their own emotional awareness and become fantastic listeners if they hope to produce a culture of agility, change, and transparency. Remember, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason so the next time you want to speak choose instead to listen.
While inbound communication is perhaps the most vital and overlooked form of communication leaders must also be excellent outbound communicators. Simply, leaders must ensure their outbound communication drives ownership not merely artificial alignment. Unfortunately, many leaders often make the mistake of believing that others see the vision and are completely aligned. However, oftentimes merely a superficial alignment has transpired with little to no ownership. BCG has found that it can take up to nine conversations to ensure key change messages really stick. This is likely three times as much as most leaders would feel comfortable doing but it’s vital to enterprise success. Simply, outbound communication should be concise, simple, and frequent while also soliciting inbound input and feedback. This ensures valuable insights are not missed while also keeping a pulse on your employees. Otherwise artificial harmony and "yes" people are created instead of true ownership and action.
In summary, leaders must be dealers in empathy. This can only transpire via excellent two-way communication with a strong emphasis on listening over speaking – inbound over outbound communication. Otherwise leaders are commanding not communicating, dictating not leading, and creating followers not other leaders. To accomplish this lofty goal, leaders must remain open to receiving ideas from anyone and anywhere. A leader’s primary contribution is in recognizing and supporting good ideas no matter where in the corporate hierarchy they originate. As such, leaders develop credibility not so much in their words but instead in their ability to truly listen. This mindset allows one to connect with people on an emotional level, allowing leaders to learn while also showing others you genuinely care. This can only be accomplished through engaged listening. Simply, communicate rather than command by transitioning to two-way communication where everyone – from the bottoms-up – has an obligation to respectfully dissent, contribute, and drive change. Indeed, great leaders (1) communicate rather than command via two-way communication, (2) mentor and embrace upward mentorship, and (3) listen first before speaking. Remember, a leader isn't good because they are right but rather because they are willing to listen, learn, and bring out the best in others.
Read the other best leadership practices HERE.
24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -
The following article is Part 9 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.
Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).
INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.
EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.
INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.
Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.