Are You Listening Like a Leader?


We each bring a unique set of experiences, perceptions, memories, and bits of advice we’ve collected along the way to our leadership journey. This tapestry of ideas and assumptions is what makes us unique and it’s what makes up the breadth of our expertise. Leaders know a lot. But it’s our job to use that expertise in the most effective way. How do we ensure we put our mastery to work in the right way and make the best decisions in the moment? Lead with listening. 

Listening is one of the most powerful and efficient things a leader can master. But it can be hard. Many leaders think, “If I’m listening, I’m not doing anything.” Listening is made even more difficult in today’s interruption age; we’re so used to constant stimuli, it’s easy for our mind to start wandering, our foot to start tapping restlessly. We can begin to tune out. But it’s important to stay engaged.

Many leaders think, “If I’m listening, I’m not doing anything.”

In every interaction, or TouchPoint, listening with both our heads and our hearts is crucial to gaining a complete understanding of the issue. Without this full understanding, we can easily waste everyone’s time by solving the wrong problem or merely addressing a symptom, not the root cause. A challenge for many leaders, since they do know so much, is that they only listen briefly before jumping in with a “fix” “ often times before they fully understand the matter at hand. This can waste a chance to get it right the first time and squander an opportunity to learn from others who know more about the issue.

To listen effectively, practice these three ways of Listening Like a Leader:

  1. Listen with your head for the evidence:

    Get all the facts, figures and background to the situation before interjecting. Practice waiting to jump in. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that will provide even more information.

  2. Listen with your heart for the energy:

    How are the other people in the conversation behaving? Pay careful attention. Is the energy green: optimistic, alert, curious, and confident.  Is the energy yellow: questioning, hesitant, or uncertain. Or is the energy red: angry, withdrawn, avoiding eye contact, shutting down. Your employees will thank you for paying attention. Employees are usually tuned into their bosses’ moods but the opposite is very rare. Be the exception.

  3.  Listen exponentially to all the other voices that touch the issue:

    Every conversation you have has been influenced by many prior interactions. To really get an accurate understanding of the issue, it’s important to think about all the stakeholders. Listen for all the voices that touch the issue, even those that are not present. With this practice, an even fuller picture will emerge.

As you practice Leading with Listening you will be amazed how much you can learn in such a short time when you just let people speak. It’s helpful to remember this tip: Be so exquisitely alert to their words that when they are finished, you can summarize what you heard in a few succinct sentences. When you’re done, ask “Did I get that right?”  Employees will feel valued that you listened to them, you’ll make better, faster decisions, and you send the message “we’re in this together.”

We want to hear from you: How do you practice Leading with Listening? Is there a time where careful listening made all the difference?

active listening, leadership skills, Leading, listening, practice, valuing people,
  • Khwaja Shaik

    You are so impressive Doug. Careful listening is a vital ingredient during the time of crisis, idea generation, in fact at every TouchPoint. I cannot think of a successful conversation where listening doesn’t play a role. As we are moving from institutional era to human era ( concious capitalism) with the increase of globalization, listening is mandatory for every interaction. Khwaja Shaik

    • DouglasConant

      Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, Khwaja. Agree that careful listening is crucial to quality interactions.

  • Christine S Beck

    How can we lead our young people without listening carefully to them. All of our young people need leadership, guidance and trust to develop successfully as citizens. Growing up in a confusing and rapidly changing world, they need role models who will take the time to hear their concerns, their lack of confidence. We can’t lead them without listening to them. No matter how smart they seem, or how undisciplined they are, or how annoying their behavior is, we need to take the time to listen. Otherwise, how will our youth gain confidence to share their ideas and to think creatively. Sometimes they need second chances, and belief in themselves becomes yet more important.

    If adults don’t take the time to listen, how can we help our youth stay in school and become productive citizens?

    A few years ago, five 11 year-old inner-city boys asked me to write a book with them. Their reason? “We don’t have adults who will listen to us!” Nothing drives home in a more compelling way our need to lead by listening. We did write that book, and these boys expressed themselves with great openness, honesty and pride. They learned a lot by writing “Listen to Our Voices,” including, as they say, how long it takes to write a book!

    • DouglasConant

      Completely agree, Chris. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. It’s wonderful that you were able to be the adult who DID listen to those young people — what a rewarding project that must have been!

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