The Most Important Leadership Skill

If you search the web, you will find countless articles that define the characteristics or skills of a great leader – integrity, vision, honesty, creativity, inspiration, accountability, delegation – the lists go on and on.  Yet rarely do I see the single skill that I believe is most important for successful leadership – the skill of listening authentically.


If it appears at all, “communications” is typically near the bottom of most lists.  And, even when a list includes “communications,” it may not include listening among the skills.  Finally, when people do mention listening, most of the discussion is about technique (like attentive listening skills) instead of purpose or goals.


Some managers simply have no interest in listening.  These managers want to impose their vision and seek to control (or even coerce) others’ behavior.  But these attempts to control behavior and results often fall short of the mark, because employees aren’t truly committed to the purpose and goals.


I define leadership as influencing others in the service of some shared purpose.  Every time you seek to influence others – whether one person or ten thousand – you are trying to lead.  But you cannot influence people without understanding their purpose and interests, and you cannot uncover that information without listening authentically.


Even when you do try to listen, it can be very difficult so uncover the information you need.  In a world full of authority and control, people are often reluctant to share their information, for fear that it will be misused.  And, it’s even less common for people to express concerns or dissent, for fear of consequences.  So, what steps can you take to listen more effectively and then build the commitment you need to lead effectively?  Following is my prescription for how to listen authentically.


1.    Stop talking.  As obvious as this one might seem, it’s always need to start here.  People have been conditioned to believe that if you’re talking you must be leading, but effective leaders probably listen 10 times as much as they talk, and they almost always listen before they talk.


2.    Put your viewpoint on the side.  I won’t say to put it away, because you can’t, and almost certainly shouldn’t.  But far too many people listen without learning – because they’re collecting information to confirm their views or trying to surface obstacles they must overcome.  John Madden captured this idea when he said, “coaches [leaders] have to watch for what they don’t want to see and listen to what they don’t want to hear.”


3.    Suspend judgment.  This step may be both the most important yet difficult one.  Most people tend to judge as they listen. Is this person credible? Is he competent? Does he understand my interests?  People make these judgments because they’re trying to reach a decision and they’ve been condition to see leading as judging.  Unfortunately, judging blocks learning, and the most important information often comes from the unlikeliest source.


4.    Listen with empathy.  Empathy doesn’t mean agreement, it simply means seeing the world from another’s viewpoint.  Most people struggle to step out of their own viewpoint, because they have been conditioned to explain and defend it.  But, if you can see your ideas from a different view, you will often uncover new risks and also learn what it takes to build commitment to action.


5.    Seek out new information.  Listening should always lead to learning, even if you’re simply learning about what it takes to gain another person’s commitment.  Ask open, not leading, questions and seek out information that challenges your own views.


6.    Test assumption and inferences.  Finally, as you uncover new information, make sure you test any meaning you make about that information.  Is the information relevant to my goals?  Is it valid for making decisions?  Does it change the shape of my proposal?  Does it affect your commitment to action?  These are all great questions to help you test what you hear.