Good leaders listen

I have gravitated toward leadership roles for pretty much my whole life. In recent years, I have begun to understand that I have held many misconceptions about what leadership is and how to be an effective leader. Here is one of them. 

I have known that it is essential for a leader to have vision. I have wondered how vision gets formed. Judging from a lot of leadership literature, it would seem the leader just bursts onto the scene with an innate vision bubbling forth from his/her heart. When I read those sorts of things, I feel like I must be a really lousy leader. I don't have those kinds of superpowers. And now that I am learning more about leadership, I think the myth of the superhero leader is extremely unhelpful. The world needs a lot of leaders, but there aren't many superheros. So what will work for the rest of us?

In my experience, vision is part instinct and part other factors. It comes from a process of development. We shouldn't expect it to be innate. Vision is born when you care about something deeply and are committed to seeing how change can come about to open up a new future. Vision develops not in the privacy of one's internal superpowers but in the public domain of social interaction. It is people who care about the same thing getting together and seeing a future they can walk into. A leader is one who galvanizes people to walk toward that shared passion.

As a spiritual leader, I cannot overemphasize the importance of prayer and following God. I don't just want my ideas about the future. I want his. But I have found that even uncovering God's ideas about the future requires an ongoing commitment to doing thorough groundwork among people. God speaks within my heart and also through other people. It's not either/or. It's both/and.

I receive lots of great leadership counsel from both Christians and non-Christians. Frankly, I don't know any more solid leadership teaching than that done by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. I am currently reading their classic text, The Leadership Challenge. You know what I have been noticing? Listening! 
Good leaders listen. A lot.
On pp. 4 and 6 of The Leadership Challenge, K&P tell short stories about two corporate leaders who emphasize that one of the keys to their success has been simply being present and listening to people. Tom Melohn of North American Tool and Die said a successful strategy for the company came from the customers. “Melohn and his partner went out and interviewed about fifty buyers and twenty-five engineers. They asked them what they needed, what they wanted from a job shop. The answers were always the same: quality, service, price.” Do you hear it? Rather than donning the cap of superiority and announcing to their customers how North American Tool and Die was going to change the world, Melohn simply listened. 

K&P also cited Debi Coleman, who worked for Apple. She got dramatic results in turning around a manufacturing plant. What made the difference? She followed through on a “total willingness to listen to everybody about what was going on.” She spent a lot of time on the floor – up to five hours a day! Now that’s presence.

Melohn’s and Coleman’s leadership hinged on listening. Let us take notice! Both were open to receiving from others. They did not march in with a predetermined plan. They asked questions, got involved in people’s lives, and listened. Out of that listening arose both stronger community and shared commitments for a new way of life in their workplaces.

This applies to parenting, work, church life, friendships – all areas of life where we either have influence or want to. Listen first and listen often. People will tell you what really matters to them. Out of that seedbed can grow all sorts of new possibilities for the future.

I am still growing out of my old misconceptions that being a leader meant overpowering people with a grand, predetermined vision for the future. I am finding that vision comes from instinct combined with the deeply held convictions of others and the needs we are here to address. Vision is a process and a community activity. Listening is indispensable.


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