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Leaders are Listeners

Great leaders don’t listen simply to hear, they listen to understand.

I used to love watching “The Two Ronnies” and their comedy shows because I love the word humour they used.  From the iconic “four candles” sketch, the Mastermind parody with Corbet’s specialist subject of “answering the question before last”, to finishing with “it’s goodbye from me … and it’s goodbye from him”.  

One sketch I found particularly entertaining as a play on words was a singing duo they played called “Jehosaphat and Jones” where they included some innuendo in each verse and the chorus then went:

“We knew what she meant, we knew what she meant, 
We heard what she said but we knew what she meant.”

Then there is the conversation overheard between two people on a breezy day by the beach:

Isn’t it windy.
No, I think It’s Thursday.
Me too, lets get a cup of tea! 

How often do we find these scenes played out in some work or social situation when we’ve said something that didn’t come out quite right and could quite easily be misconstrued, and so often it is!

The first occasion I can recall where that happened to me in a memorable way was on a visit to the cinema as a teenager to watch a film with my girlfriend.  I can’t remember the actual film, but I do remember the misunderstanding very clearly.  As I recall there was a mountain scene with an awesome panorama part way through the film, and I said quietly (not to disturb the other filmgoers) “what a lovely view”.

Well, I was quite happy as this seemed to have been quite well received, and then with dewy eyes and a cuddle I heard my girlfriend say quietly in response: “I love you too”.  How awkward was that!

I live in near “the Potteries” in North Staffordshire and we have a traditional local dialect that has been captured really rather quaintly in a couple of books entitled: “Arfur Tow Crate in Staffy Cher” (aka how to talk right [correctly] in Staffordshire).  A fabulous read for those interested in the variety of dialects spoken around the UK.  There you can learn how to talk right when you visit “neck end” (ie Longton), how you might find a piece of cheese in your snappin’ (A piece is a sandwich, and your snappin’ is your lunch) and how to kick a bo agin a wo (kick a ball against a wall).

Amusing as this all is – at least it is to me – it brings me to the subject of today’s blog post: listening. In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven Sample writes that:

“the average person suffers from three delusions: 1- that he is a good driver, 2- that he has a good sense of humour, and 3- that he is a good listener.

~ Steven Sample

Most people would agree that listening is an essential skill in life and business, yet so few seem to be skilled practitioners.  In my line of business I spend quite a lot of time “networking”.  Now most people who advise on how to be an effective networker would say that this is supposed to be a time where we listen to what the other person has to say and get to know them, hopefully get to like them, and subsequently get to trust them.  However, the practice for many people I encounter seems to be quite the opposite – one of telling me all about themselves and what they do, and then they glaze over until they have the opportunity to escape and go to tell someone else what they do.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give anyone is the gift of attention.”

~ Jim Rohn

The truth of the matter is though that listening is not only an important skill, it is imperative for a good leader to develop the skill of listening well.  John Maxwell says it this way: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.  It’s impossible to connect with those you lead without understanding them, and you can’t really understand them if you don’t listen to them.

Effective and regular listening can help to avert problems before they become big problems.  When a leader stops listening to anyone but those who tell her what she wants to hear, that’s when a gap starts to emerge and if left unattended will cause a rift to occur in a team and an organisation.  A deaf ear is the first symptom of a closed mind where leaders only listen to their own advice, or people who concur with their advice.  

“Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.”

~ Stephen Covey

The less we have to listen to others, the more we need to make it a priority to listen to those at all levels in an organisation, and in particular pay attention both to what is being said and to what isn’t being said.  Most important of all is to listen with the intent of understanding the other person, and not trying to think about what you want to say in reply.  In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey calls the 5th Habit “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” and this is valuable listening advice here.

About Roger Fairhead

Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.

Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.