Active Listening: the Key to Leadership Success

Leaders are often thought of as the individual undertaking the most personal risk. Even the military has morphed their ideals on leadership roles, shifting away from the highest ranked official and instead citing the individual or group who knows the mission and territory the best.

Today, the key step for being a true leader is active listening. Active listening is the act of repeating back, in your own words, what you believe was said.  Active listening focuses on more than just hearing the words, it is about understanding them to make sure that you are on the same page with others in the discussion. If you start with active listening as leader you can determine who understands the mission the best, who is most capable of success and what kind of support is required for a positive outcome.

Effective listening skills, make it possible to select leadership and those responsible for success. Many of us have heard that a good leader surrounds themselves with brighter and stronger individuals. However, how do you assess leadership potential when a predetermined hierarchical organization already exists?

This concept is combated by leadership that is visible and communicative at all levels. The In Search of Excellence author, Tom Peters utilizes the term “management by walking around”. If those in charge do not not have direct contact with all levels involved, how can they really lead?

I often tell upper management that they have earned their stripes and that I view them as “the Elder council”. No serious strategic moves will be made without them being part of the decision-making; however, markets, customers, supply chains, manufacturing processes and everything else in the age of “digital connectivity” changes too fast for a traditional organization to react in a timely fashion. Meaning constant communication needs to flow in both directions.

John P. Kotter wrote the book XLR8, which takes this concept on leading and describes a dual system organization meant to keep traditional hierarchy in place but facilitates direct and timely moves via a second organization that does not follow the former.

Active listening and fluid communication takes time and cannot be accomplished overnight. After absorbing a new operation, I visited the factory floor. I could see people looking at the floor or walking the other way. When I actively listened to these employees I found that the consistent understanding was that management only comes out onto the floor if there was a problem, or someone was being fired. Simple communication on why I was on the floor, paired with their conveyed worries, allowed for better understanding and encouraged a greater team environment.

Instant recognition by the leader should be added as one of the key steps in today’s world. Take away the fear, show people that you are willing to listen and take positive action based on the messages of those around you. Show them you appreciate their daily contributions. It has been shown that a yearly bonus or a salary increase do not have the impact of instant recognition, a thank you, a photo, a small gift card, or dinner with a spouse paid for by the company for their contribution.

A leader does not have to ask for or make strategic decisions every day, effective leadership can be found in the small details. A manufacturing worker suggested quality would improve if the factory was better lit. One week later, LED lighting was installed. You could feel the change in atmosphere that a leader was actually listening.

Customers have a direct impact on the direction and success of a business. Pareto’s Rule suggests that 20% of your customers represent 80% of your profit margin. A leader should pay particular attention and listen to those customers.

Active listening, instant recognition, being visible at all levels of the corporation, good communications. This is leadership!


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