Most people think they are good listeners; most people are wrong. I have been spending time reviewing some of my favorite leadership books and came across The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample…and I know listening is something I need to get much better at.
According to Sample…A contrarian leader is an artful listener, who knows that listening is an excellent means of acquiring new ideas and gathering and assessing information. Artful listening enables the leader to see things through the eyes of his followers while at the same time seeing things from his own unique perspective—a process which Sample calls “seeing double.” The contrarian leader prizes and cultivates his ability to view things from two or more perspectives simultaneously.
The leader who can turn listening into an art is one who goes beyond merely listening passively; he becomes intensely interested in what’s being said and draws out the other person. In the process he gains additional details, as well as valuable information about the filters and biases of the person he is listening to.
Additionally, there is a lot to be learned from listening to two different people separately recount the same event. No one is able to give a completely unbiased report on any event or issue; it will always be filtered to some extent through their prejudices. Getting multiple perspectives gives the leader a better chance of discerning the truth of a matter.
The conventional rules of communication most leaders learn as they grow don’t equip them to be artful listeners. For one thing, leaders who listen carefully run the risk of being misunderstood. Sympathetic listening by a leader can easily be misinterpreted by his followers as giving his assent. That makes it the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the person speaking is not inadvertently misled by the leader’s honest efforts to understand and appreciate what’s being said.
Another aspect of listening gray (hearing the shades of gray in a situation in order to make good decisions about how to proceed) is that a leader shouldn’t make up his mind about people’s credibility unless and until he has to. Many failed leaders felt they had to decide right away if someone was worth listening to. They tended to write off apparent fools, only to find that inarticulate people sometimes have the most valuable things to say. It’s amazing at how easily some leaders are taken in by glib, highly articulate fools.
Contrarian leaders who practice artful listening will also practice open communication in their organizations. It is a gift to talk informally with employees and colleagues throughout the organization regardless of their place in the hierarchy. There is a danger, though, in undercutting the authority of other managers.
Sample advises the best way to walk this tightrope is through something called “open communication with structured decision making.” Under this framework, everyone in the organization is free to communicate with everyone else in the organization, with the clear understanding that any and all decisions will be made strictly through the hierarchy. This allows for the free flow of information while maintaining order in the decision-making and avoids undercutting mid-level leaders.
A great goal for December…be contrarian…and be an artful listener (the first comes easy for me…the second might take some work).
How are your listening skills?