Listening Tops the List

I recently found myself at an event with a group of very senior-level leaders and leadership practitioners. This is a sort of “under-the-radar/kinda-like-Ted” loosely coordinated annual event. There are about 50 of us in the group, and at any given event (both in person and over the Web) between 35 and 40 participate.

The group ranges from coaches and organizational development consultants to global CEOs. No clients, no selling, no need for showboating. Simply a loosely organized time to refine ideas, undertake discussions on challenging topics, swap stories about common challenges and bond over creating the experience. I feel lucky to be included as I am one of only a few who has not published or been the topic of a book (yet).

I share this because early in the conversation this year, one of the quieter members laid a challenge before us. Could we, as a group, come to consensus on the single most important and foundational leadership skill?

In the end, what we came down to was — drum roll please — listening.

In the end, listening became the proverbial superpower that most of us thought had the greatest impact on leadership. From a first blush perspective, this seems fairly ho-hum. After all, we listen all the time, right? Well, that depends on what you call listening. We all run occasionally, but very few of us run 4-minute miles, much less 4-hour marathons, or any marathons for that matter.

In the end, listening beat out such other leadership heavyweights as emotional intelligence, strategic vision and even resonance. The reason is simple: Someone who can listen so deeply and so fully to another gains the benefits of those skills and a knowledge of the minds of friends and foes alike.

So, do you want a New Year’s resolution that goes straight to the heart of leadership for 2014? Resolve to be a better listener.

This is not like getting in shape or losing weight or even better delegation. It’s harder. If you do not believe me, try this test, identified as an intermediate to advanced exercise in listening. Pick a person whose views you do not share. Ideally (and for safety purposes), pick a politician or media personality.

Are you left leaning? Your target might be Glenn Beck or Ann Coulter. Do you lean right? Prepare to sit down (virtually of course) with Nancy Pelosi or Kevin Drum. Listen to them fully and with a singular goal: to be able to see the world through their eyes. If you are responding to this exercise with a retort or eye rolling or dismissing it as without merit, you make the point for me. Note that the assignment does not require that you agree or approve, only that you can see the world for a time as someone very different from you sees it.

To do that, we have to give up some of our favorite ways of listening. We normally listen while we are thinking about our response. We listen with a constant inner QA engineer sorting out what we like and do not, what we approve of and do not and what we agree with and do not. Truly listening means being able to suspend all that and just being present to learn.

I will address the deeper value proposition for listening in a future column, but if you need a reason to take on listening as a meta-skill for leadership, consider this. The next time you sit down to negotiate with a vendor, pursue a major contract, deal with a troubled direct report or surly board member, recruit a key executive or deliver bad news to any of the above, imagine your advantage if you truly understood and could empathize with their position.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, December 23, 2013.