Leadership Quality #11: Listening – to Connect with Their Hearts, use your ears

A good leader encourages followers to tell him what he needs to know, not what he wants to hear.

If you were creating a list of influential people, who might be on that list? Would you think of a talk show host? You may think of Oprah Winfrey first as a talker, however, it’s her ability to listen that has been a chief characteristic of her life. She said, “Communicating with people is how I always developed any kind of value about myself”.  Oprah is known for shaping her show via listening to her staff. One of the ideas she had doubts about but had the wisdom to listen to was the idea for a book club. Today hundreds of people are learning and growing by reading, some for the first time.

Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand. That’s the Law of Connection. Before a leader can touch a person’s heart, they have to know what’s in it. They find that out by listening. Peter Drucker, recognised for his discussions on management, believes that 60% of all management problems are the result of faulty communications. I would say that the overwhelming majority of communication problems come from poor listening. A lot of voices are clamouring out there for your attention. As you think about how to spend your listening time, keep in mind that you have two purposes for listening: to connect with people and to learn. For that reason, you should keep your ear open to these people:

  1. Your Followers – Good leaders, the kind that people want to follow, do more than conduct business when they interact with followers. They take time to get a feel for who each one is as a person. If you are in the habit of listening only to the facts, and not the person who expresses them, change your focus, and really listen. “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people” (Woodrow Wilson, former US President).
  2. Your Customers – “Listen to the whispers and you won’t have to hear the screams.” Microsoft CEO Bill Gates said, “Unhappy customers are always a concern. They’re also your greatest opportunity.” Good leaders always make it a priority to keep in contact with the people they’re serving.
  3. Your Competitors – If I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening – as a leader, you don’t want to base your actions on what the other guy is doing, however, you should still listen and learn what you can do to improve yourself.
  4. Your Mentors or Coaches – No leader is so advanced or experienced that he/she can afford to be without a mentor or coach. I’ve learned so much from leaders who have more experience than I have. If you don’t already have a mentor or coach, go out and find one. If you cannot get someone to help you in person, begin the process by reading or listening to books.


Are you a good listener? If you notice you are too busy doing your own thing and trying to make things happen you may need to slow down. Pay more attention to what is happening around you and that way you can sharpen your focus and accomplish more. When was the last time you really paid close attention to people and what they have to say? Do more than just grab onto facts. Start listening not only for words but also for feelings, meanings and undercurrents. As a performance coach, I’m listening for what’s going on behind what’s being said (the mindset or context) as well as listening for what’s not being said.

To improve your listening, do the following:

  • Change your schedule – Do you spend time listening to your followers, customers, competitors, mentors? Does your calendar regularly reflect time for all four groups? Pencil in time for each of them on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
  • Meet people on their turf – A key to being a good listener is to find common ground with people. The next time you meet with an employee, or a customer, discipline yourself to ask four or five questions about him as a person. Get to know who he/she is, and seek common ground to build your connection with him/her.
  • Listen between the lines – As you interact with people, you certainly want to pay attention to the factual content of the conversation. However, don’t ignore the emotional content. Sometimes you can learn more about what’s really going on by reading between the lines. Spend time in the coming days and weeks listening with your heart.

The only way to find out what you’re missing is to start listening.

Part 11 of our Leadership Series: Leadership is an Inside Job, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader


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