When I used to think of great leaders, I used to think of great orators. People who could persuade others by the power of their words and arguments. Over the years, however, I have come to recognise that listening is core to leadership. I have witnessed several inspiring people fail in their leadership because they stopped listening. Or chose only to listen to those who agreed with them.
Perceptive leaders often go further than listening. They develop the ability to put themselves firmly in the shoes of the other; to hear and understand things from a perspective that is completely different from their own. And then they allow those fresh insights not only to enhance their own argument, but also to allow their understanding to be reshaped and informed by the wisdom of others.
I remember a friend and colleague once expressing frustration that I had gone into a meeting arguing for one solution; and an hour later I was arguing for exactly the opposite thing. I was able to say that I had completely changed my mind because others in the room had helped me to see and understand differently.
When we are dealing with deliberately knotty problems – ones to which there are no easy answers – I sometimes ask people to work in groups to put forward the arguments for a solution that they don’t subscribe to. It can be incredibly difficult, and takes practice. However, when we do it, it helps us to understand the issues, and the people who hold them, more fully. That’s critical if we are to lead impactfully.
Sometimes it is possible to go even further and to develop genuinely collaborative responses.
Jessie was a remarkable woman. She spent most of the latter years of her life fighting tenaciously for the rights of her grandson and hundreds of other young people who, like him, were growing up in kinship care.
Jessie didn’t suffer fools gladly. One day she found herself in a room of people who had the power to make changes. And she was determined that she was not going to miss the opportunity. So, she let them have it. At the end of her diatribe, she virtually shouted across the table: “So what are you going to do about it?” (There may have been a few other words in there that indicated just how strongly she felt the injustice!)
There was an awkward silence which seemed to last for an age. And then John spoke up. He said, “Nothing. Jessie, I am going to do nothing.” I thought that a fight was about to break out. But then he continued. “Jessie, I am going to do nothing because I have spent a lifetime trying to sort this. And, despite my efforts, I have clearly failed. So, this time I am just going to listen. And then, hopefully, we can do something together.”
And that is what happened. John and others listened with humility. Jessie also listened, discovering how hard it was at times to make the changes that were needed. And as leaders together, they improved things for many young children in kinship care. There is still a long way to go, but by listening – really listening – they made progress.
If you want to lead, you need to listen.
This article first appeared in the June 2023 Issue of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. Subscribe at https://www.lifeandwork.org/subscribe/subscribe.