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Leadership by Listening

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Sheri Welsh

I sat in a meeting once where a discussion took place regarding leadership. A colleague questioned his usefulness in having been appointed the leader of a committee where another person was facilitating the discussion.

He wondered if he was brought in simply to be figurehead or if his role was even necessary if he couldn't lead or control the conversation. His real concern could be simply stated, "If I'm not talking, I'm not leading." And that got me thinking - how do I view my role as a leader?

If you had asked me that question several years ago, I think my answer might have been quite different than today. In the past, I saw a leader as one who might feed ideas and direction into a meeting, verbally leading the group to a conclusion or outcome. Over time, my concept of leadership has evolved into something quite different - much more like "leadership by listening."

A trusted friend and colleague of mine who is a credentialed Executive Coach told me that one of the most common things she works with leaders on is listening - because many struggle with that skill.

Stephen Covey knew that, too. In his well-known book "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" he popularized the phrase "Seek first to understand; then be understood," a concept which may even have its original roots in the Bible (Proverbs 4:7).

A simple concept which has been known to leaders for hundreds of years, yet is so easily overlooked may be one of the secrets to truly becoming a successful 21st century leader.

Leadership by listening is so hard to do! Let's just acknowledge that most of us practice a type of listening that is more about listening to reply than listening to understand. We are so focused on our response that we don't take the time to truly "hear" what they are saying. And I'm not talking about words here; I'm talking about hearing the true meaning and intention of what they are attempting to convey.

So what exactly does leadership by listening look like? For me, it means that when I am asked to lead a group, I will tend to listen much more than I speak, particularly in the early stages of the group's formation. I want to hear what everyone has to say.

I want to hear their suggestions, thoughts, questions, and "how-in-the-world-did-you-come-up-with-that?" unfiltered brainstorms. I have been known to actually encourage that type of exchange in the hope that it will help me better understand the issue at hand, where each person may be coming from, and build consensus around an action plan.

Along the way, I think each and every participant in that group benefits from the process as well.

Our old habits die hard. Perfecting your listening skills as a leader will not happen overnight and even after you improve your skills you may find that you fall back into those old habits of listening to respond again.

I certainly have not mastered the art of leadership by listening, but one thing I know; you will get what you focus on. I know that if I stay focused on becoming a better leader by becoming a better listener my skills will surely improve. And the people and places that I serve will benefit from it, too.

Old Testament writers and Steven Covey alike were on to something. Isn't it interesting how we struggle with some of the same human tendencies today that our ancestors did hundreds of years ago?

Today you have an opportunity to chart a path that is different. Make a difference with your leadership. Walk the road less traveled - leadership by listening.

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