Good Leaders Listen

A number of years ago, I worked as a laborer for a mechanical contractor. We helped build the former Main Street Mall in Park City, Utah. As tenants began to occupy the building, it became apparent that there were some problems with the cooling system.

A meeting was called for all the contractors and many of the subcontractors who worked on the construction of the mall, presumably to discuss the problem. I happened to be there, too, and I learned a great lesson. These busy contractors sat in the room waiting for a constructive discussion. Randy Fields, at that time the “Mr. Fields” to Mrs. Fields of cookie fame, and a principal investor in the building, strode into the room.

Without any acknowledgement or introduction, he began: “We have a problem! I don’t care what it is or who is responsible: just fix it!” Then his tirade was over, and he left.

To say that we were all astonished would be an understatement. These contractors were busy men. They took time away from other projects to attend a 30-second meeting that accomplished exactly nothing. Except that it made a lasting impression on me. And the vast majority of them did not need to be there.

Fast forward to a recent committee meeting I attended. We had a brief agenda, and finished quickly (which does not often happen). Then our supervisor announced “Since we have some time left, I would like for us to have a frank discussion.” He proceeded to talk for 12 of the next 15 minutes, and honestly, he did not receive any meaningful feedback from any of us.

What did these two meetings have in common? The “facilitator” was not interested in listening; only in presenting and defending his own position.

Good leaders listen. A leader who doesn’t listen is more tyrant than leader. It is important for a connected leader to hear and consider what his people have to say. In our church councils, the leader has the ultimate decision-making authority, but the leaders I have served with consider the opinions of all before they present their decisions.

This is why many organizations follow parliamentary procedure: so that all participants may feel that their voice is heard.

An effective leader must be prepared to manage discussions in meetings. At the same time, he can receive useful information that will help him to fulfill his responsibilities.

When a leader cuts off discussion by defending the status quo, or by pushing his or her own agenda, the other attendees will cease to be followers. Particularly in a committee or council setting, it is important that everyone (within reason) feels that his opinion is valued. Many members will be reluctant to contribute if they feel that this is not the case.

Covey taught “Seek first to understand; then to be understood.” Effective leadership demands that we truly listen to our “followers” with the respect we would expect if the roles were reversed. That is often our biggest challenge as leaders. All too frequently we are thinking of what we will say next instead of listening attentively.

I have become a good listener because I have significant hearing loss. That bears some explanation. I have 50% hearing loss in my right ear. This creates difficulty for me in noisy rooms and many social situations. And if you are sitting on my right side, I won’t hear you well. While I do not read lips, if I don’t look at the person conversing with me, I cannot hear them well. Eye contact supports my ear contact. And I can see accompanying facial expressions, too.

Try this for a week. When you converse with someone, direct your full attention to the individual who is speaking. You will be amazed at what you hear.

Listen and lead!

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