The Best Leaders Are Listeners
By Dr John C. Maxwell
Steven Sample, in his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, writes, “The average person suffers from three delusions: (1) that he is a good driver, (2) that he has a good sense at humor, and (3) that he is a good listener.” I plead guilty on ill three counts!
I will never forget the time a lady I worked with confronted me about my poor listening skills. She said, “John, when people talk to you, often seem distracted and look around the room. We’re not sure that you are listening to us!”
I was surprised because, like most people, I really did think I was a good listener. The first thing I did was apologize. I trusted the opinion of the person who had confronted me, and I knew it had taken courage for her to tell me. (I was her boss.)
The second thing I did was start trying to change. For several years I made it a regular practice to put an “L” in the corner of my legal pad anytime I was in a meeting to remind myself to listen. Sometimes I would write “LL” to remind myself to look at them while I listened. It made a big difference in my leadership.
Steven Sample says, “Many leaders are terrible listeners; they actually think talking is more important than listening. But contrarian leaders know it is better to listen first and talk later. And when they listen, they do so artfully.”
The positive benefits of being a good listener are much more valuable than we often recognize. Recently I read a humorous story that Jim Lange included in his book Bleedership.
A couple of rednecks are out in the woods hunting when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are rolled back in his head.
The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls 911.
He frantically tells the operator. “Bubba is dead! What can I do?”
The operator, in a calm, soothing voice says, “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”
There is silence, and then a shot is heard.
The guy’s voice comes back on the line and says, “Okay, now what?”
As this story about rednecks illustrates—we can hear what is said without really listening to what is being communicated. The hunter above heard what the operator told him and technically did make sure that his hunting companion was dead. But had he really been listening. I don’t think he would have shot his partner.
The story may seem silly, but it contains an important truth. When we hear without really listening, our leadership is bound to suffer—and so will our followers.
I once read about a study that stated that we hear half of what is being said, listen to half of what we hear, understand half of it, believe half of that, and remember only half of that. If you translate those assumptions into an eight-hour work day, here is what it would mean:
• You spend half your day—about four hours—in listening activities.
• You hear about two hours’ worth of what is said.
• You actually listen to an hour of it.
• You understand only thirty minutes of that hour.
• You believe only fifteen minutes’ worth.
• And you remember less than eight minutes of all that is said.
That’s a pretty poor track record. And it shows that we all need to work much harder at actively listening!
Why Listeners Are More Effective Leaders
Because of my desire to be a more effective listener, I have actively observed leaders for years and paid close attention to how the effective ones listen to others. And I have come to come conclusions about the impact of good listening related to leadership.
1. Understanding People Precedes Leading Then.
Leadership finds its source in understanding. To be worthy of the responsibility of leadership, a person must have insight into the human heart. Sensitivity toward the hopes and dreams of people on your team is essential for connecting with than and motivating them. In my book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I write about the Law of Connection, which states, “Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand.” You cannot connect with someone if you don’t try to listen to and understand them. Not only is it not fair to ask for the help of someone with whom you haven’t connected, it is also ineffective. If you want to be more effective connecting with people, make it your goal to understand them.
2. Listening Is the Best Way to Learn
It is no accident that we have one mouth and two ears. When we fail to listen, we shut off much of our learning potential. You’ve probably heard the phrase “seeing is believing.” Well, so is listening. Talk show host Larry King said, “I remind myself every morning nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I’m going to learn. I must do it by listening.”
In 1997 we moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Immediately I realized the influence of the African American community upon that city. I wanted to connect with people in that community and learn about their journey. I asked my friend Sam Chand to set up four lunches with some top African American leaders. For me, it was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. Our time together was filled with our getting acquainted, my asking questions, and my listening to wonderful stories. I left each Lunch with new friends and great respect for the people I met and for their life experiences. Many individuals expressed their surprise to me that with my leadership experience, I did not try to teach them about leadership, but that I was the student and they were the teachers. If I had done that, I wouldn’t have learned anything. Today I am still listening to and learning from many of the leaders who became my friends at those lunches.
3. Listening Can Keep Problems from Escalating
A Cherokee proverb says, “Listen to the whispers and you won’t have to hear the screams.” Good leaders are attentive to small issues. They pay attention to their intuition. And they also pay close attention to what isn’t being said. That requires more than just good listening skills. It requires a good understanding of people, and it also means being secure enough to ask for honest communication from others and to not become defensive when receiving it. To be an effective leader, you need to let others tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear.
Gordon Bethune, former CEO of Continental Airlines, took this idea a step further when he advised, “Make sure you only hire people who will be willing to kick the door open if you lose direction and close it. You may be able to ignore somebody’s opinion if you don’t like it, but if the person has the data to back it up, your intellect should be able to overwhelm your vanity.”
A common fault that occurs in people as they gain more authority is impatience with those who work for them. Leaders like results. Unfortunately that action orientation sometimes causes them to stop listening. But a deaf ear is the first symptom of a closed mind, and having a closed mind is a surefire way to hurt your leadership.
The higher people go in leadership, the more authority they wield, and the less they are forced to listen to others. However, their need to listen becomes greater than ever! The farther leaders get from the front lines, the more they must depend on others for accurate information. If they haven’t formed the habit of listening – carefully and intelligently—they aren’t going to get the facts they need. And when a leader stays in the dark, whatever problem the organization is having will only get worse.
4. Listening Establishes Trust
Effective leaders are always good communicators, but that means much more than just being a good talker. David Burns. a medical doctor and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, points out, “The biggest mistake you can make in trying to talk convincingly is to put your highest priority on expressing your ideas and feelings. What most people really want is to be listened to, respected, and understood. The moment people see that they are being understood, they become more motivated to understand your point of view.”
Author and speaker Brian Tracy says, “listening builds trust, the foundation of all lasting relationships.” When my employee confronted me about my poor listening skills, what she was really telling me was that I was not trustworthy. She didn’t know whether her ideas, opinions, and feelings were safe with me. By becoming a more attentive listener, I was able to earn her trust.
When leaders listen to followers and use what they hear to make improvements that benefit those who speak up and the organization, then followers put their trust in those leaders. When leaders do the opposite—when they fail to listen—it damages the leader-follower relationship. When followers no longer believe that their leaders are listening to them, they start looking for someone who will.
5. Listening Can Improve the Organization
The bottom line is that when the leader listens, the organization gets better. Former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca asserted, “Listening can make the difference between a mediocre company and a great one.” That means listening to people up and down the line at every level of the organization—to customers, workers, and other leaders.
Dallas-based Chili’s, one of the nation’s top restaurant chains, has prided itself in having leaders who listen. Norman Brinker, onetime owner and chairman of Chili’s, believes that responsive communication is the key to good relations with both employees and customers. He also has learned that such communication pays big dividends. Almost 80 percent of Chili’s menu has come from suggestions made by unit managers.
Listening always pays dividends. The more you know, the better off you are—as long as you maintain perspective and think like a leader. Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, wrote. “Minds are of three kinds. One is capable of thinking for itself; another is able to understand the thinking of others and a third can neither think for itself nor understand the thinking of others. The first is of the highest excellence, the second is excellent, and the third is worthless.” To be a good leader, you must be able to not only think for yourself but also understand and learn from the thinking of others.
Is it possible to be a leader without being a listener? The answer is yes. Talk to employees in companies all across the country and they will tell you that they work for people who do not listen to them. Is it possible to be a good leader without listening? The answer is no. No one can go to the highest level and take his or her organization there without being a good listener. It simply doesn’t happen, because you can never get the best out of people if you don’t know who they are, where they want to go. why they care, how they think, and what they have to contribute. You can learn those things only if you listen.
Author and speaker Jim Rohn says, “One of the greatest gifts you can give anyone is the gift of attention.” I believe that’s true. But listening to followers isn’t just a gift to them. It benefits the leader too. When leaders listen, their receive others’ insight, knowledge, wisdom, and respect. That puts all of an organization’s assets into play ready to be marshaled for the fulfillment of the vision and the attainment of its goals. What a wonderful gift.
1. Give yourself a listening audit. The next few times you are in meetings, ask your assistant or a colleague to track how many minutes you spend speaking and how many minutes you spend listening. If you are not spending at least 80 percent of the time listening, you need to improve. Try writing “L” on your notes where you will see it.
2. Who doesn’t feel listened to? If people you work or live with feel that you do not listen to them, you will be able to see it in their faces. Think about the people who are most important to you in your life. The next time you have a conversation with them, stop everything you’re doing, give them your undivided attention, and look them in the eye as they speak. If you see surprise, avoidance, or hostility in their expression, it may be because they feel you have not really listened to them in the past. Start a dialogue on the subject. Ask if you’ve neglected to listen in the past, and then let them talk. Don’t defend yourself. Seek only clarification and apologize if necessary.
3. What people have you neglected to seek out? Effective leaders are active listeners. By that I mean that they do more than listen to people who approach them with something to say. They seek out the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others—starting with the top leaders who work for and with them. If you haven’t heard from some of your key people recently, seek them out and give them your ear.