Beyond Vision Part 1: The listening leader

Being a leader is tough. You’re expected to know where your organisation is going, make it happen and deal with relentless waves of change. And the resources available to you – your team members – bring their own mix of issues, motivations, needs and capabilities.

Leadership is also a profound privilege. Decades of research remind us that leaders have the biggest impact on people’s experiences at work. They create the environments that liberate – or stifle – others’ contributions. By understanding the demands of the job, the strengths and needs of their team, and the challenges of their situation, leaders can choose what they do and say to bring out the best in their people.

Choosing how to make a difference

Exploring and exercising our choices isn’t always easy. The leaders I coach typically find themselves tackling these three assumptions:

This is who I am: We’re all inclined to stick with what comes naturally to us. These habits, or traits, become part of who we are and shape how others see us. But Daniel Goleman’s exploration of Leadership That Gets Results challenges us to extend our repertoire. He shows how effective leaders use different styles of leadership. They choose the right styles in response to the situations they face. And they draw from – and develop – all their capabilities in order to maintain a broad kitbag of leadership styles.

I know where we’re going: Effective leaders uphold and communicate their organisation’s vision. They choose an authoritative, visionary approach to set a course, keep their team aligned with the business, and encourage engagement and effort. However, for many leaders facing increasingly volatile, uncertain and complex contexts, this approach is becoming harder. As their organisations shift direction, they need to be ready to shape and share a different vision.

I know what we need to do: Whether they came up from the ranks or picked things up quickly, leaders can often be the most experienced person in their team. But the pace of change is causing many to take positive steps to encourage more team input. Goleman describes how the democratic, participative leadership style encourages contributions from competent, knowledgeable team members. However, he cautions its use with employees who are less capable of generating new ideas.

Choosing to grow your people

For some leaders, the capability of their people is their biggest frustration – how can they possibly deliver with the resources they have? If they choose to sidestep this hurdle, without overcoming it, they can find themselves restricted to using coercive, directive or pacesetting leadership styles that will, over time, erode their team’s performance.

Those who believe that part of the privilege of leadership is to help others grow can make different choices. So how can they get the best from their employees’ participation, regardless of their levels of capability?

Choosing to listen

In More Time To Think, Nancy Kline shows how we can directly impact the quality of people’s thinking by listening. Sounds deceptively simple? Kline is clear that “behaviour in the listener is more important than IQ, education, experience or background in the thinker” and her work shares ten behaviours that enhance thinking. In my coaching conversations with leaders, four of these often give them a head start:

  • Listening with full attention to ignite thinking and creativity, without interruption or the intent to reply.
  • Listening with palpable respect, recognising our fundamental equality as thinkers, regardless of different experiences and insights.
  • Listening with ease, offering freedom from the destructive habit of rush and urgency.
  • Listening with appreciation, and showing it succinctly, sincerely and specifically to encourage rigorous, creative thinking.

Delivering through others is tough. But leaders who are willing and able to choose between different leadership styles bring out the best in their team members. Taking a participative approach to encourage everyone’s input is especially important when the organisation’s vision is shifting. And using the coaching style builds long-term capability (more on this in Part 2).

The leader who is prepared to listen – with genuine, disciplined interest – can transform their use of these styles into profound opportunities to help others grow.

If you want to create an environment for creative, independent thinking – for yourself and others – come along to the Thinking Partnership Retreat in Essex on 28-29 November and 13 December.

If you enjoyed reading this article, I’d love to hear from you. If you think it can help others encourage listening leaders in their organisations, please pass it on. Connect with me on LinkedIn or simply get in touch. 

Thanks for reading!

Photo: Samuel Dixon – Unsplash

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