The First Skill a Leader Needs is to Listen—
Did You Really Hear That?

Here at [college named] we want our students not merely to become successful but to become leaders in their chosen professions. Does anybody doubt there’s a desperate need today to mold better leaders for tomorrow?

If you followed the healthcare debate, no doubt you’re appalled at the divisiveness it generated. From the vilest of name-calling, to racism, to death threats. Standing in front of the TV, one was tempted to shout back, “Just listen to yourselves!” “Do you really hear what you’re saying?” Of course, those purported leaders, elected or self-proclaimed, weren’t about to listen to themselves, let alone listen to any opposing view.
Yet listening is the most critical of all leadership skills. From it flows understanding, respect, vision, consensus, collective accomplishment and radical change.

Many people believe that a leader is one who dreams up a personal vision, persuades a hard-working coalition to buy into it, then beats down the inevitable opposition. The reality, though, is that listening ought to precede vision. The would-be leader needs to listen to his or her own inner voices and also listen to others at a level deeper than the words in the air. We’re talking about true open-mindedness, yes, and beyond that, open-heartedness.

Systems thinker Peter Senge puts it this way: “To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows but for what he or she is…. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.”

The first challenge for leaders, then, is to listen “generatively” in order to better understand both the path of change and the motivations of those who would walk it, including himself.

Senge’s reference to music reminds me of a fantastic documentary about jazz musician Miles Davis, called Miles Electric: a Different Kind of Blue. In it keyboardists Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock describe Miles Davis as the “best listener who also led a band.”

Hancock says Miles taught “the gift of listening…. It was incredible how the notes that came from his horn were a real combination of his own creativity and his ability to hear what everybody else was playing and incorporate it into this kind of core that would come out of his trumpet. Miles would play a phrase, and then I knew what we were all doing. But it took his voice… his ability to hear what that could be and provide the glue to bring it all together.”

That’s as fine a definition of leadership as we’ll ever hear. Are we listening?



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