Servant Leaders & Listening

I think it’s fair to say that traditionally leaders are recognised, valued and promoted based on their ability to speak not on their ability to listen. The senior leaders of businesses are generally the best presenters which makes them great communicators, at least to crowds. That said communicating to crowds is a one way exercise usually characterised by telling and yelling. I’m not suggesting that  presenting is an invalid way of communicating but what I am saying is that in both cases the leader is doing all the talking and the crowd is doing all the listening (or at least we hope it is!)

The danger of not taking the time to listen is that the presenter ends up answering questions that no one is asking, offering solutions for problems that no one is trying to solve and perhaps most importantly, not checking that what they have communicated has been understood. This last point is crucial. Communication is not defined by what has been sent but by what has been received. Checking understanding is hugely important in leading but difficult to do with a crowd hence the importance of persuasion.

Without checking understanding it is possible for presenters to convince themselves on a job well done whilst the reality is that what they have said has not been heard (in through one ear and out through the other) or has been misunderstood. I wonder how often the crowd disperses at the end of the presentation holding on to completely the wrong end of the stick! In which case the goal of the presenter in communicating is unlikely to be achieved.

Listening is also important in determining where people are on their journey. I’ve noticed that my vocabulary, the questions I am asking and the problems I am trying to solve have changed as I have journeyed. Listening to people helps me understand where they are on their journey. I don’t know if you have ever been asked to provide directions over the telephone to someone who is lost. If so then like me the first question you will have asked that person is “where are you?” The reason being that no matter how clear you are about the destination you cannot help that person get there without knowing where they are starting from. In fact any directions you give them based on a misunderstanding of where they are will most likely confuse matters.

Leadership requires insight into the point of departure as well as the point of arrival. The ability to provide vision and direction are popular leadership attributes but without the ability to listen, strategic and visionary leaders will struggle to connect with the people they are trying to lead and lose them in the process.

One of the most powerful ways of communicating to someone that you honour them is to listen to them. It strikes me that any discussion about a culture of honour tends to focus on our mouths not our ears. A culture of honour is comprised of people who are great listeners, people who don’t just speak well but listen well. The art of active listening is beyond the scope of this post but over the years I have learned that listening is a skill that can be developed and a discipline that needs to be maintained.

I’ll leave you with the thought that to love well is to listen well and to lead well is to listen well and to lovingly lead is to listen really well! Go out of your way today to listen to someone, maybe your colleague or team member. Take a genuine interest in what they’ve got to say and experience the power of listening.

Mark Lawrence is a leadership and culture consultant