Updated: Jul 17, 2020
Not too long ago, a student approached me after an on-site leadership session and asked me
what I thought were the most important characteristics of becoming an effective leader. I
thanked her for the question, then reeled off several attributes in a row, such as persistence,
hard work, intelligence, analytic ability, tough-mindedness, courage, patience, anticipation, and goodwill.
The last characteristic seemed to surprise her. She asked me to elaborate, so I said that, in my
professional opinion, an effective leader has to like two things: people and problems. In other
words, great leaders can't do their job well if they see people and problems as an imposition on their day.
Being a promising student, she then asked how she could demonstrate goodwill to her team
members. I replied, “By doing something that many people think they know how to do but really don’t know how to do - listen! Listen with an open mind.” I continued, “The biggest
communication problem I see with leaders is they do not listen to understand. They listen to
This seemed to resonate with her. I asked her if she had an open mind, to which she
emphatically replied that she did. I told her, “Go home tonight and start a debate with someone you live with. As they are talking, ask yourself if you are forming a rebuttal before that person is even done talking. Because if you catch yourself doing so, you don’t have an open mind. Your mind is already made up.”
I could see the wheels turning in her head and asked her again if she had an open mind. She
smiled and said, “Well, maybe not as often as I think.”
I like to challenge leaders on all levels by asking, “What is so hard about having an open mind?” It shocks many of them to hear that the most significant risk of having an open mind and listening is that someone may change your mind. Changing one’s mind makes us feel insecure and defensive.
Based on my years of experience, I doubt there is anything a leader can do to build high-quality relationships more rapidly or maintain them as solidly than seeing people and problems as opportunities to grow as an active listener. Thankfully, there are simple techniques you can implement today that will help you develop this skill. They are clarifying, restating, and summarizing.
Next time you’re having a conversation with someone, practice active listening by using these
skills – you will notice that the other person will continue to open up and share their thoughts.
Not only are clarifying, restating, and summarizing a quick and thoughtful way to bond with
someone, as your skills develop, you will find yourself doing them automatically. Soon you will
be able to listen with undivided attention despite all of the pressures on you as a leader.
The #1 complaint employees have of their leaders is that they do not listen. The #1 complaint
your spouse or partner has of you? You don’t listen. The #1 complaint kids have of their
parents? They do not listen. Think about that – people you interact with all day feel unheard!
But, there is hope. Listening is a skill that takes practice, and it is never too late to start learning. When you become an intentional listener, you become a better parent, spouse, friend, and leader. Remember, Leaders Are MADE, Not Born.