Leadership As Listening

Leadership As Listening

When we think of great leaders, we tend to think of people who were great speakers. With their words they could inspire audiences, shape the narrative, chart a course forward, and motivate change. Great leaders have something to say, we believe, and the ability to take command, gather followers, and change the world.

People contend that, at its core, leadership is about the ability to move others forward. Think about these definitions of leadership:

  • Kevin Kruse: “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” [1]

  • Eric Michel: “Leadership is the art of empowering and mobilizing others to want to accomplish a mutually agreed-upon goal while advancing the group’s integrity and morale.” [2]

  • US Army: “Leadership is influencing people by providing purpose, direction, and motivation, while operating to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” [3]

  • John Maxwell: “Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.”

Each one, at their core, requires good communication, a set vision that will be accomplished, and the ability to motivate others forward.

Yes, leaders need to be able to speak. But great leadership ought to begin with listening. [4]

“What do you want me to do for you?” This was one of Jesus’ go-to questions when encountering someone. [5] Jesus sought out people’s stories, listened to their questions, and discerned the deeper issues on their hearts. Sometimes he met their needs, sometimes he went above and beyond, but it always began with listening. Jesus was a great speaker and a master communicator; he was a phenomenal leader and could inspire individuals and large crowds. But Jesus was also a great listener.

If we want to be great leaders, we need to start by listening to those who are under our care. This is difficult for me to do because I have an agenda. I love to see things get accomplished. I keep running lists, even of little things, and enjoy the feeling of checking things off as they get done. But listening requires me to put aside my own itinerary and attend to another. Now my task becomes simple presence, allowing people to open up as they will. Listening requires us to hear the things on their hearts, both the said and the unsaid. And it requires us to practice humility, because we must be open to the fact that God speaks and moves the hearts of our church members in order to help lead leaders. God’s Spirit isn’t reserved just for those in positions of leadership; indeed, often the greatest kingdom blessings are found in the hearts and minds of the people in our pews.

So, how do we learn to listen?

  1. Be present, and to all kinds of people. It is easy to have coffee with those with whom we always agree or share a lot in common; it is far more difficult to be present to those who are different. We need to take time to meet with a diverse group of members in order to best understand them. Seek out connections in the community in order to get a deeper understanding of the people who live around you. What’s on their hearts and minds? What are the yearnings of their souls? What is God up to in their lives, even if they don’t recognize it at the moment?

  2. Listen to understand and not to respond. Rather than looking for ways to interject our thoughts and opinions, we must listen to what the other has to say. Try to keep your defensiveness to a minimum and, instead, allow the other person to lay out the conversation. And…

  3. Ask good questions. Once again, look for ways to deepen and clarify, not become defensive. Seek questions that dig to the whys and hows of the conversation. Hear what the individual is saying—and not saying—in the midst of the conversation. What is truly on their hearts? What are they trying to convey to you?

  4. Offer feedback, summarize, and clarify as needed. Show the other person that you are engaged in the conversation and seeking to understand what they are saying.

  5. Do whatever is necessary with the information you’ve been given. Sometimes it is prayer; other times it requires action. Sometimes we need to respond; other times we must stop and reflect.

Listening is humility; so speaking without listening is hubris. To speak without first hearing means I believe that I have all the right answers—that my own preferences and biases are ultimately correct and representative of all of those under my care. But listening allows me to hear others’ stories, learn about the yearnings of their hearts, and examine my own preconceptions. Listening is a spiritual act; we realize that God doesn’t just speak to and through leaders but to all kinds of people in all walks of life, even if they don’t recognize that small, still voice as God. It trusts that leaders can learn from those with whom they engage, and that great guidance can come from all kinds of people and interactions.

Leading with grace requires us to listen—to God, to ourselves, and to others. Only by opening our ears before opening our mouths can we truly lead as we should.

[1] Kevin Kruse, “What is Leadership?” Forbes April 9, 2013. Available electronically at http://www.forbes.com/ sites/kevinkruse/2013/04/09/what-is-leadership/. Last accessed October 26, 2015. Link broken as of November 13, 2018.

[2] https://harvardleadership.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/defining-leadership/

[3] US Army Leadership Manual, available online at http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/r600_100.pdf.

[4] This thesis is argued by Scott Cormode, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. See https://www.fuller.edu/next-faithful-step/classes/cf565/leadership-begins-with-listening/ and https://depree.org/leadership-begins-with-listening/.

[5] Mark 10:51; Matt. 20:32; Mark 10:36; Luke 18:41; etc.

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