Great leadership isn’t just about knowing what to do and how to do it. There’s also another important factor in the mix — practicing active listening.


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Humorist Mark Twain left us a great legacy of life lessons and funny stories. I’ve read so many of them repeatedly. “My Watch,” “What Stumped The Blue Jays” and “Journalism in Tennessee” still make me laugh out loud.

My favorite by far is an irony lover’s delight. In a short story titled “Luck,” Twain tells the tale of a nitwit army officer who rises through the ranks and achieves great honor by always making the worst possible choice in any dangerous situation. He is a complete fool, but by extraordinary good fortune, bone-headed blunders always result in victory.

That’s fiction, of course. In real life, bad decisions often have consequences. Anyone in a position of leadership has a responsibility to make good choices on behalf of those who rely on that leader.

In any endeavor, leaders must have a sense of urgency about achieving results. However, the very qualities necessary to good leaders — such as confidence and experience — can isolate them from valuable information vital to optimum success. To put it more bluntly, some are just know-it-alls. And that can be dangerous.

I read a story a couple of years ago about a preacher who was electrocuted standing in the baptistery in waist-deep water holding a microphone. I can’t imagine that, in the entire congregation, there wasn’t a single person who understood the negative effects of introducing electricity into a pool of water. But if they did, they didn’t mention it.

If you’re a leader, you already have a pretty good idea what to do and how to do it. But leaders need one more thing — the ability to grow faster than the people they lead. Leadership is more than fulfilling the functions of the job. It’s about taking everyone to the next level, themselves included. 

The key to that isn’t within the leader. It’s in the personalities of those being led. It isn’t something that can be wrung out of them, but it can be coaxed out of co-workers.

Since good, effective leadership is especially important in today’s COVID-19 world, here are six thoughts for leaders wanting to make sure they’re actively listening.

1. Improve two-way communication

“Why doesn’t anyone ever ask us?” is a common lament among a lot of people in the workplace. It’s also a very good question. Too frequently, leaders assume they know what’s best without getting any feedback from the front lines.

Communication tends to be initiated by leadership and is largely one-way. There may even be an implied warning about a potential response or an existing reluctance among subordinates to provide feedback. Few people are willing to point out that “the emperor has no clothes.”

2. Create a listening culture

Saying that you have a safe and open culture that encourages communication, and actually implementing that culture are two different things. In most organizations, the messenger is routinely shot.

Using labels such as “whiner,” “malcontent” or “non-team player” to describe those who step forward to address difficult topics has a chilling effect. We would not have “whistleblower” laws if there wasn’t a very human tendency to want to retaliate against the bearer of bad news.

3. Embrace the idea that all information has value

Get out of judgment about the information or the way it’s presented, and be happy to have it. Whether you like the message or not, all information has some value. For the most part, it’s the way we respond to it that matters.

4. Actively solicit feedback

Develop a mechanism that allows for anonymous feedback and another that actually rewards ideas, tips, complaints, suggestions and news. Just as most leaders evaluate and rate the performance of subordinates, there should be an opportunity for subordinates to rate leaders. (I knew you’d love that one.)

5. Ask lots of questions

Develop four or five routine questions, relative to the employee’s situation, to stimulate conversation.

6. Be there

A face-to-face conversation is the gold standard of listening. But given today’s situation, we’ll have to resort to the next best thing and interact via video conferencing tools. That way, you can still see the person you’re communicating with while practicing safety.

Phones still routinely drop calls. Not to mention, they don’t allow for eye contact or body language. And it’s starting to seem to me like almost everyone’s emails, including mine, feel angry.

Sit down, unhurried and uninterrupted. No voice calls, no texting. If you have the ability to host a face-to-face video meeting with anyone, don’t waste it. This applies to group meetings as well. 

Back in the day, employees could be fired or cut from the team if they didn’t like the way things were being run. Now, leadership exists because people get their needs met by following their leaders. Among those needs is a strong desire to have their thoughts considered as decisions are being made.

The most effective leaders are those who lead the willing.

George W. Mantor has spent more than four decades in the real estate business and is the author of The Awful Truth About Careers in Real Estate and What to do About It. A Guide to Building a Rewarding Real Estate Business. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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