RLL 19: Listening as Leadership

Real Life Leading #19:

Listening as Leadership

My older daughter and I goofing off when we're supposed to be doing a photo session.

My older daughter and I goofing off when we're supposed to be doing a photo session.

One night this past week, I received an amazing compliment from my teenage daughter. I had tucked her in at bedtime (I’ll keep doing this as long as she lets me), and then she and I had started talking. After ten minutes, I realized she really did need to go to sleep because she had school the next morning. I mentioned this to her, and she responded with something that brought tears to my eyes. She said, “But Dad, I don’t want to go to sleep yet.” When I asked her why not, she replied, “Because I like talking to you.”

A day earlier I had an amazing conversation with my younger daughter as well, and as I reflected on those two conversations, I realized that I hadn’t actually said much during either one. Perhaps that’s why the girls enjoyed those particular exchanges so much; and isn’t that true of all of us? Many of us love to talk with people, to share stories, to make people laugh or feel whatever we felt in the moment we’re reliving through the stories. If you're at all like me, though, what we're less good at and what we often enjoy less is being a good listener to other people’s stories, especially when we have stories of our own that we want to share.

Today, I want to encourage you to consciously apply yourself to becoming a  better listener for two reasons: one, everyone needs a good listener in their lives, and if we can be that for people, so much the better; and two, being a good listener is crucial to being a good leader. It is through listening that we discover the chinks in our organization’s armor. It is through listening that we discover what problems need to be solved and who may have unexpected skill sets that can help to solve them. It is through listening that we learn, and if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know how big I am on learning as a leader.

Three quick thoughts on why listening is so crucial to great leadership:

1) Listening forces us to focus on other people, not just on ourselves.

My younger daughter and I on another photo adventure!

My younger daughter and I on another photo adventure!

When I was talking with my younger daughter, I had to force myself to not do my typical parent move of “Here’s the problem; here’s the solution, now let’s move on.” Instead, my wife has encouraged me to really just listen sometimes. As I’ve gotten better at that, I’ve discovered that many people aren’t looking for solutions. They’re simply looking for someone to listen to them as they share whatever is on their heart. If we’re going to listen well then we have to actively pay attention. This means putting our phone or other device away, looking people in the eye, and really focusing on what they are saying and feeling. And that goes a long way toward relationship building.


2) Listening helps us empathize with what others are going through.

Have you ever told someone a story about a huge event in your life, only to hear your ‘listener’ utter a noncommittal grunt at the end? I know I have been the ‘grunter’ more often than I care to admit, and that happens when I wasn’t really as interested in listening as I should have been. When we truly listen, we connect emotionally with the story-teller, and that allows us to empathize with them as they recount their tale. I have found this is extremely important when talking with my wife and my daughters, especially as they have gotten older. Bullies at school, successes in the classroom, problems with friends, joy at some award; whatever the story is about, if they feel something, I want to feel it with them so they know that I care. I’m very blessed at work to have bosses who listen this way, and it makes me a more committed employee because I know that when I’m dealing with something, they get it, and it matters to them too.


3) Listening lets us learn.

Family selfie! 

Family selfie! 

This one may seem a bit self-evident, but it’s worth saying anyway. When we listen well, we learn: we learn history, we learn economics, we learn about other people’s personality and preferences. At soccer practice the other day, my assistant coach (whose father started our program ten years ago) began telling the current players about how different things were then and contrasting where we are now. This was done in an effort to help the current group appreciate the work done by previous players, and it opened their eyes to how blessed we all are now. Listening helps us learn, and that learning also teaches us humility. I know that when I listen to my daughters I'm often surprised at some of the things they tell me; sometimes it's because they're so different than I was, and sometimes it's because I've forgotten what it was like to be an adolescent. Whatever the reason, I'm always amazed at what I learn when I actively listen to them.

When we listen, we are purposely focusing on other people. This helps us be more empathetic, and it also helps us to learn about other people as well as ourselves. How much can this transform culture in the workplace? Tremendously so. Imagine an organization of people who lead from a place of understanding because they’ve been actively listening to each other: collaboration increases, productivity increases, morale increases. Imagine a family where the parents listen to the children as they recount their days, and as the children listen as their parents share the wisdom of their years. As a teacher and coach, I’ve found that one of the best things I can do to build great relationships with my students and players is simply to listen. As an employee, manager, owner, or entrepreneur, if you listen, you’ll be amazed at how it can transform your world too.

Action Step: this week, make it a priority to resist the urge to interrupt when someone is telling you a story. Instead, follow up a story with at least two questions, to show the storyteller that you were listening and interested. Then email me and let me know how it went.

Have a great week!

Real Life Leading #10: "The Illusion of Enlightenment" -- The Danger of Thinking We Know More Than We Do

Real Life Leading #10

“The Illusion of Enlightenment” -- The Danger of Thinking We Know More Than We Do

Last February, I was involved in a significant car wreck while traveling home from soccer practice. It was dark, it was raining, and while I was driving at 65 mph down Highway 431 in Alabama a large truck pulled out from a gas station when I was about fifty yards away. For some reason, the truck was slow to pull across my two lanes, and so as I approached, I was faced with having to make one of three choices: 1) pull my car right, off the road, and into a ditch; 2) go straight into the side of the truck (I drive a small sedan) at high speed; 3) pull my car left into oncoming traffic. Now, when I tell this story to my high school students, the typical question I get is, “Why didn’t you just hit the brakes?” usually asked in a tone of condescension reserved only for those who are blissfully ignorant of key aspects of a discussion.

In response, depending on my level of patience that day, I (either patiently, or less patiently) explain a few things to my students (mostly freshmen and sophomores whose average driving experience is less than a year): 1) that hitting the brakes on a wet road at 65 mph wouldn’t have actually stopped the car in the space available; and 2) it might cause hydroplaning, causing me to have even less control of the car; and 3) it’s always interesting that people who don’t really know how to drive suddenly seem to feel qualified to give advice to people who do.

To be fair to my students, all generations have the tendency to assume they know better than previous generations, and so my students may or may not be any more arrogant than we were as children. In fact, I would argue that the propensity to assume we know much more than we do is something of which we are all guilty, especially in today’s society fueled by smart-phones and internet access.

That is, as leaders and simply as people, we often have a tendency to assume that we know much more than we actually do. Students are convinced they don’t need to study because they can simply look up whatever they need to know using wikipedia or similar sites; parents are convinced that they know as much as doctors because they spent time researching on webMD; and people like myself are convinced that we’re smarter than everyone else simply because we try to remain informed about news, sports, current events, etc.

As if this illusion of enlightenment wasn’t enough, the tendency to have our preconceptions or assumptions confirmed is furthered by the self-imposed echo chambers of social media. On our facebook, twitter, and instagram feeds, we are often only exposed to articles or statements that confirm our own opinions, confirming what we already know, or think we know. This in turn reinforces our belief that we know what we think we know, and it also lessens the likelihood that we’ll continue our research with openness, since we’re already convinced that we’re right. And as leaders, this is extremely dangerous territory.

If we are to lead well, we must 1) be aware of the dangers of this illusion of enlightenment, and 2) take steps to avoid it and to lessen the effects of it when we have already fallen prey. In leadership positions, we are often the decision makers, the managers, the ones responsible for making things function the way they are supposed to. As a result of that, we are in danger of, as coaches are often warned about, “believing our own press,” or becoming satisfied in our own knowledge and expertise. When that occurs, our leadership is likely to stagnate, since we are no longer pursuing ways to improve because we are already convinced that we know what we’re doing. We may not think of it in these terms, but this pattern can be observed in many situations: husbands who become inattentive of their wives, coaches who lose the commitment of their players, teachers who refuse to consider new methods or different classroom projects, etc. In all of these situations, the result is the same: the illusion of enlightenment leads to a lack of continued intellectual growth.

Thus, after becoming aware of these dangers and the negative results that inevitably follow, we must examine our current leadership situations and see where we have already become stagnant, and we must takes steps to correct this. In short, we must begin anew the process of becoming a leader, an expert, a student. The solution, then, is humility: we must be willing to admit that we don’t know as much as we think we do, and we must back this up by seeking information even when we think we are already experts in our given areas. We must purposefully seek out new information, even from sources we know we disagree with. We must humbly ask others for guidance or suggestions, and we must be willing to consider their answers, rather than immediately rejecting them based on our previously held assumptions.

The purpose of leadership is to positively influence others in whatever roles we are in. This can be accomplished in a wide variety of ways, in different stages, at different times. But throughout all of those, the danger of becoming self-satisfied, of becoming prideful, of being convinced that we know best, is ever-present. The danger of the illusion of enlightenment is very real, and thus our response must be conscious, it must be intentional, and it must be continual. Good leadership is crucial, and in our ever-changing world, good leadership requires constant learning, an open mind, and a willingness to entertain alternate viewpoints while remaining true to our worldview and underlying beliefs.

Action Step: This week, identify one area in which you feel like an expert, and then go and spend ten minutes researching that same area. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you find something new that you didn’t know, or a new perspective to consider.