I recently had the pleasure of engaging in a conversation about “Leading by Listening.” The need for better, stronger, more effective, less damaging communication (of which listening skills are a key component) has been pretty popular over the last several years, and there are a lot of interesting perspectives on the “best practices” on how we, as leaders and as people engage in communication. And there’s no question that we have a communication crisis in our world.
I believe a bigger contributing factor to the communication gap is that there is an (almost) insurmountable chasm between the two primary ways “Leadership” is framed.
Do you define a leader as an “All-knowing deity”? Or do you see a leader as “The ultimate accountability holder”? Those are incredibly different perspectives, and better listening skills aren’t going to fix it. If you think you know it all (or you believe you’re required to maintain that pretense as part of your role), you of course won’t be asking what anyone else thinks, because their input is irrelevant to that worldview. So it’s really no surprise that in the first scenario these “leaders” don’t actually listen, no matter what fancy words they spout about “open-door policies” and all the rest of the things they think they’re supposed to say because they read about them in some Forbes or John Maxwell excerpt. In fact, they CANNOT listen – it might invalidate their carefully constructed house of cards, and everything will come crashing down.
I propose that the issue is not as simple as “learning how to listen”, although without a doubt there is always room for us to increase our listening skills and communication fluency in ALL directions of that cycle. Perhaps, though, as we’re shoring up the situation on that front, we also need to reframe the way we approach leadership. And this is bi-directional.
As leaders, we would be well-served to release the archetype of “All-Knowing, All-Seeing Deity in the Corner Officer”, for a zillion reasons. It sets us up for failure, for sure, because nobody IS infallible (“Welcome to humanity! Here are your imperfections! Do great things with them!”), and so when – not if – we get it wrong, how high of a pedestal shall we tumble from? Depends on how high you built it in the first place, and if Leadership is akin to Godliness, then that’s a super long tumble. I hope you brought a parachute (and I don’t mean the golden kind that funds your kids’ college educations). It damages trust, which is antithetical to successful business operations. It separates us from the people we most need connections with – our colleagues – because we must hide behind that false front (“Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain!!”) And it creates an INSANE amount of pressure for the person sitting on that throne which by its very nature make you more likely to screw up. Goodbye Optimal Executive Function, hellllooooo ulcers, and catastrophic errors in judgement!
As those in the trenches, we are failing both ourselves AND those we entrust with the steering of the ship we’ve signed on to serve when we expect (or agree to) this image of leadership. This perspective presumes that only the Head Cheese has any worthy knowledge and that immediately shuts down creativity, collaboration, innovation, and productivity, all of which is bad for business – and even worse for our psyches as we marinate in this dysfunction.
When leaders see themselves as holding the ultimate accountability, they may still turn into tyrants – it for SURE happens – I know some of you have worked for those people, too! But at least in this paradigm, there is a chance, an opportunity for leaders to choose a better path, one of belonging, teamwork, and shared passion and growth. If I acknowledge I DO NOT have all the answers, and I’ve done a decent job of hiring smart, thoughtful humans, I can go to them with an open mind and heart, empowering us, together, to find the best (or at least a better) path to success.
When we change how we view “leadership”, we give ourselves permission to be human.
We’ve seen what people can do while fettered by limiting beliefs. What if we ditched that old, tired archetype and treated everyone as a functional, critical input-providing part of the team? Imagine the possibilities!