The highest level of listening is achieved when it supports leadership as a relationship. When trust is supported by the follower’s perception of the leader’s ability to listen and discern prior to deciding or emitting judgments.
In their book, Credibility Kouzes and Posner (2003) assert that credibility is the foundation of leadership (p. 11). They go on to explain that “today, leadership is only an aspiration. It is something you have to earn every day because on a daily basis people choose whether or not they are going to follow you” (p. 11). An individual’s ability to listen and engage is highly relevant to their credibility and their position as a leader.
In Listening: The Forgotten Skill Burley-Allen (1995) reminded us that most of what is communicated is not verbal. She describes the claims by Randall Harris that only 35% of the meaning of a communication comes from words and the remainder comes from body language (p. 70). Understanding the implications is important, but it should not be a cue to approach listening as a process through the mechanics of body language. I have had multiple encounters with senior level executives who understand the importance of listening and body language but engage in it at a cursory level. It is easy to spot. In most cases the leader has read a book or taken a course to improve his or her listening skills. They follow mechanical methods to improve their listening and the perception that others may have about being listened by the leader. These listeners focus on the process. They manage their eye contact and nod their head, but there is certain awkwardness to their body language. Listening at the cursory level conveys the feeling of a transactional conversation. Burns (1978) states “transactional leaders approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another” (p. 3). The perception that the conversation is transactional can create a lack of credibility and a feeling that the leader’s motives may not be sincere. As stated by Kouzes and Posner (2003) “Credibility is the foundation of leadership… People have to believe in their leaders before they willingly follow them” (p. 15). A leader can be so preoccupied with the process of listening that they may forget to hear because their attention is focused on their body language and their physical actions. “Listening involves a more sophisticated mental process than hearing… The first step is to realize that effective listening is an active, not a passive process” (Burley-Allen, 1995, p. 3). A pitfall can be focusing on convincing people that we are good listeners and forget about actually listening.
Great leaders teach, coach, and guide others to align their actions with the shared values of the organization (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.90). They can be great communicators but what makes them effective is their ability to guide others into finding their answers versus providing them. “Questions develop people. They help people escape the trap of their own paradigms by broadening their perspective and forcing them to take responsibility for their viewpoint” (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.97). Asking a good question also drives a leader to listen attentively to what others are saying (Kouzes, Posner, 2012, p.97). A strong argument can be made that listening is the difference between teaching and preaching. “Earning and sustaining credibility is not a casual exercise. It requires adherence and devotion to a way of doing things that goes beyond mere acknowledgment of its importance” (Kouzez & Posner, 2013, p. 67). The level of credibility required to be a transformational leader demands sincere listening. Kouzes & Posner (2007) remind us that “listening is far more effective than telling when it comes to getting people to believe in you” (p. 140). A transformational leader gradually gains credibility by asking others to explain themselves instead of confronting them with his or her own point of view. Listening becomes a behavior when it guides and it allows others to lower their guard and reconsider their own arguments. A leader that is not judgmental and is open about their own uncertainty can enabled others to surface their issues and talk about their own perceptions.
An argument can be made that a leader who exposes their own uncertainty and listens to many people before making decisions can be perceived as weak. Greenleaf (1996) stated that “It is an art to drive hard with a light hand” (p. 25). The fear of many leaders to be perceived as weak may come from what Greenleaf (1996) describes as the distracting meanings and connotations of strength: “Grim determination, the head bloodied but unbowed – these are the stereotyped attributes of strength in a person.” (p. 25). However, same stereotype that can work against the leader if followers perceive a style that is not willing to listen and is predetermined to impose. “Any leaders who would impose their will upon others and allow them no choice are not morally legitimate.” (Kouzez & Posner, 2013, p. 67). This can be problematic in most modern societies that are characterized by diverse and eclectic backgrounds where ethical relativism must be considered in the decision making processes. Wall (2013) describes ethical relativism as “the claim that there is no correct set of moral obligations and values” (p. 18) he further explains “ethical relativism is usually defended, by appealing to cultural relativism” (p. 20). The concept of ethical guidelines that are not absolute is not always easy to absorb. “Most of us in the Western world have been brought up to respect the Judeo-Christian ethic. But this is not a static concept anymore. It is being enlarged by new knowledge and, as the world becomes one, by ideas from other cultures.” (Greenleaf, 1996, p. 28). Listening becomes a relationship when it supports the individual as a moral leader. People have to believe that leaders make decisions based on solid principles. When the dilemma or the solution is not clear-cut, the ultimate decision or judgment is as important as the process a leader used to reach it. The credibility of decisions is impacted by the follower’s perception of the leader’s ability to listen and discern prior to deciding or emitting judgment.
In Leadership Ethics Mapping The Territory, Ciulla (1995) reminded us that leadership is based on the relationship between leader / follower (p. 6). Approaching listening as a process and at the cursory level can convey the feeling of a transactional conversation that can create a lack of credibility and a feeling that the leader’s motives may not be sincere. Listening is an effective component of leadership when it becomes a behavior that builds credibility and supports a leader’s ability to guide others into finding their answers versus providing them. The highest level of listening is achieved when it supports leadership as a relationship. When trust is supported by the follower’s perception of the leader’s ability to listen and discern prior to deciding or emitting judgments. At this level of leadership, supported by listening, a follower may not agree with a decision or judgments but accepts it because of trust in the leader, the relationship, and the process.
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Burley-Allen, M. (1995). Listening: The Forgotten Skill—A Self-Teaching Guide. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Greenleaf, R. K., Frick, D. M., & Spears, L. C. (1996). On becoming a servant-leader. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers
Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. (2003). Credibility: How leaders gain and lost it, why people demand it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Wall, T. (2003). Thinking critically about moral problems. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Yukl, G. (2012). Leadership in organizations. (8th ed., p. 5). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.