Leadership by Listening


Are you a good listener? Listeners can be great leaders because they have volumes of field intelligence that no one else has bothered to notice. I know from firsthand experience.

Sometimes, good listeners aren't recognized as excellent or potentially excellent leaders because we're not standing in front of large groups of people making speeches. Instead, we're having one-on-one conversations: learning more about our friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, tapping their domain knowledge, and getting a handle on their passions, frustrations, and dreams. It's this information that we use to identify opportunities, plant seeds, spread ideas, and make things happen.

If you happen to be one of those people who might be listening so much that you don't have a chance to promote yourself, and perhaps you're a bit on the quiet side, you can still be an incredible leader. Consider these ideas.

Find Good Opportunities

Tackle the project that no one else wants. The project might seem troublesome, controversial, or inconsequential. A factor in being a great leader is choosing projects carefully. But just because no one else is interested doesn't mean the project (or program or problem) isn't worthy of our attention. If you're trying to establish yourself as a leader and can't get the right opportunities, then taking on a challenge can be a great way to earn recognition.

Solve a problem. For whatever reason, the powers-to-be (no matter how wise and well-informed) have a persistent or particularly annoying problem. They're concerned, reasonably or irrationally, about seeming insensitive, setting too-rigid guidelines, not preserving the peace. The truth is that I get mired in similar problems because I've listened to others' concerns and complaints, which may make it easier to sort through these dilemmas, recommend solutions, and stand firm.

Learn to recognize "amazingness." Some of my best leadership successes have involved learning from incredibly talented people and adapting their fresh, relevant concepts to the needs of my group and community. Listening to lots of people can mean noticing trends and recognizing novel ideas as well as knowing when a group is ready to hear about new approaches.

Keep Listening

Assess and leverage strengths. Learn about other people's strengths and preferences by asking questions, listening to responses, and showing genuine interest in varied topics, common and obscure. Rather than assigning people to random tasks, leaders who listen can easily locate and call on the right people for expertise, support, and collaboration. Remember to make an open call to find folks with unadvertised talents and those who are lousy at self-promotion but still want to contribute.

Challenge and encourage, but don't push. Be upfront about commitments you'll need as well as the support you're willing to give. Listen for a negative response and accept "no" as readily as you embrace "yes." Understand that too many "no's" may mean that the timing for a project, program, activity, etc. just isn't right. Knowing when to walk away is a valuable asset.

Listen to people with diverse viewpoints. Meet with stakeholders who can influence the success of your mission and uncover their concerns. Use these insights to modify project details, avoid violating values held by team members, and ensure integrity in communications. Take this time to explain your intentions and how your actions will benefit their long-term goals.

Be Real

Accept that your leadership style will be different. Feigning ultra-confidence probably isn't going to work well for those who are intent listeners, especially those on the introverted side. You've probably detected inconsistencies in others' calls to action and execution of action plans. You don't want to mislead in any way so you might not act totally fearless. Some will reject your style but others will be attracted.

Admit mistakes. No one wants to repeat the same mistakes. Actually, many people don't want to make mistakes at all, especially ones that might become public. But if you're taking on the projects that no one else wants, then you are likely to encounter new territory and make missteps. Staying upbeat is extremely valuable in rallying support. But acknowledging imperfection makes you more approachable by those with great ideas and shows that you're not obsessed with your plan but rather with fulfilling a mission.

Take Action

Leadership opportunities exist at the convergence of troublesome projects, hand-wringing problems, people who have the knowledge and desire to help, and amazingness. If you are truly listening, you'll see these opportunities and seize them.

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Guest's picture

Julie this is an excellent post and you have collated the criteria pretty neatly. In the online fora as well, you will see that most leaders/companies are more focused on 'broadcasting'. Such entities fail to leverage social media simply because they were not listening.

Loved reading this through

Julie Rains's picture

Though I was thinking more about face-to-face conversations, you are right about the importance of listening rather than broadcasting. Listening is becoming more and more essential to all aspects of success communication and leadership. For those who are looking to explore marketing as listening, I particularly like Seth Godin's book (Permission Marketing" detailing differences between "interruption marketing" and permission marketing" based on listening and customization, all within the right time frames.

Guest's picture

This little article should be reduced and stuffed in the pocet of anyone in any type of management position. All key points that the majority of managers out there have no clue about. For most, they think that management is about "being in charge" and "telling others what to do".

It is so much more than that.

Great piece.

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