So, the most powerful leadership skill is (drum roll)—listening.

What? You’re not thrilled to find that out?

It’s OK—no one is. That’s the problem. Listening is the Clark Kent of leadership skills; everybody knows he’s a good guy, and nice and all—but nobody realizes the incredible power hiding behind those tortoise-shell glasses. A good deal of research has been done about the impact of listening on human interaction…but again, it’s a little Clark Kentish; a little nerdy, a little boring, a little drab (sorry, International Association of Listening).

So let’s not talk about research, let’s talk about our own direct experience. Think about the last time someone in a position of power relative to you—a boss, parent, coach, mentor—really listened to you. Focused his or her full attention on you, and truly took in the idea, perspective or feeling you were expressing, without judgment, or interruption. What was your experience?

Most people, when we’ve asked them this question over the years, say some version of “it felt great.” They respond that it was easier to talk, that they felt their opinions mattered, they felt respected and even honored. They also say that it made them feel more positively about the other person; that he or she was open-minded, thoughtful, secure, powerful, intelligent.

Wow. In my first book, Growing Great Employees, I included a true story of a situation I’d observed where genuine listening by a leader completely changed the direction and tenor of a meeting:

Just recently, I watched a client of mine, someone for whom I have a lot of respect as a person and as a result-oriented businessman, sit in a meeting with a group he had just been brought in to manage. Their previous boss and other senior execs had recently been fired very publicly, and they were wary and unhappy. He only talked about 10% of the time. He started out by letting people know that he wanted to get their understanding of the current state of the business, and hear about what they thought were the key issues. He then focused on people as they spoke, and he took notes. When he did speak, he asked insightful questions or made statements that built on what people had said. At the end, he thanked everyone, and clarified a few next steps. As people left the room, I could tell they felt more relaxed and hopeful. He had communicated very clearly and powerfully to them what kind of a manager and leader he was going to be. Much more powerfully than if he had told them “I value you, and I’m interested in your point of view”: he showed them, by listening.

The problem with listening is that though it’s easy to acknowledge it’s a good thing to do, and we can all agree we like being listened to, it’s not so easy to do it well and consistently. I’ve noticed, over the years, that three things have to happen, before somebody starts being a better listener:

  • You have to believe that it will really make a difference in your relationships and results (or you won’t make the effort to change)
  • You have to be willing to give up control of the conversation for part of the time (this may be the most difficult for some people)
  • You have to learn the actual skills of listening (because it is a skill, like tennis or carpentry, that you have to understand and practice in order to get good)

Now depending on whether you folks are interested in this, I’m happy to write another post talking about the skill of listening as a manger and leader, and how to do it well. What do you think?