Leading by Listening

What is the most critical leadership quality in turbulent times?


Anyone who is even remotely interested in business literature has, at some point, read an article on how to develop good leadership qualities. Focus, confidence, integrity, passion, effective listening, and competency often top the list, and for good reason.  These characteristics need to be possessed by all great leaders, and they need to be consciously cultivated on a continual basis.
But are these qualities enough to lead successfully in a business climate where volatility and change has become the norm? A few decades ago, an organization could rely on a visionary leader to see the “big picture” and help steer the ship in the right direction to hit both immediate and long-term goals. Times have changed, though – and drastically — as organizations of all types and sizes face increasingly complex and unpredictable challenges.  In today’s volatile business climate, businesses experience an unprecedented degree of turnover, competition, disruption, uncertainty and other types of obstacles to achieving their goals.  In keeping with these changes, the leadership qualities that once paved a path to success are now merely the price of admission to play in a high stakes game with low margin for error.
For those of us over the age of forty, the classic archetype of leadership tends to be of a self-assured individual who has always has all the answers and knows how communicate them confidently and unambiguously through a sequential top-down chain of command.  In this model, a few people at the top of the chain have access to the greatest amount of information – everything from customer feedback to financial data – and they use this input to make all major decisions for the entire organization.  This type of leadership used to work well in a world where things changed slowly and business dynamics were fairly predictable from quarter to quarter.
But in the midst of disruption, the challenge for most leaders is how to get everyone moving in unison when the goal posts and the rules of the game are constantly changing in real time.  Team alignment is absolutely essential to achieve anything of real significance, and agility is quickly becoming the most critical ingredient of success in turbulent times.  
Consequently, the need to be “right” is quickly being replaced by the need to be flexible.   Flexible leaders have the ability to change their plans to maintain productivity during transition or periods of chaos.  The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) asserts that rapid organizational change is one of the most significant leadership development challenges facing businesses of tomorrow. Like Cisco and IMD, they’ve found that many organizations have mastered the operational or structural side of change, but have merely skimmed the surface in terms of the people side of change.
CCL recommends implementing Change Leadership; focusing on the phases of change and the emotions associated with those changes, to help people cope with constant shift and gain desired results from a new direction, system, or initiative.  Change Leadership requires leaders, and the organization as a whole, to address beliefs and mindsets that will develop the practices and behaviors that help people adapt to change.

Tomorrow’s leaders must learn to treat uncertainty and ambiguity as the new normal.  In keeping with that, the most important quality of the successful contemporary leader may be something that is fundamental to all human relationships:  The ability to listen.

Let’s face it – we are in the midst of a global listening epidemic.  Every minute, 2.46 million social posts are shared, 277,000 Tweets are written and 3,472 images are pinned, and yet most of us still don’t feel like we are being heard.   We’ve all experienced the deleterious effects of the lack of active listening within the workplace at some point.   Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the workforce has attended a meeting in which one executive does the talking while other participants hold back their thoughts, worried about the impact of changes and decisions, while feeling utterly powerless to express themselves or do anything about their circumstances.  The result is not only a lack of consensus — when staff members don’t feel that they’ve been heard, the result is a general lack of commitment, engagement and productivity.
It’s time for leaders to start listening more actively to the people who truly know the most about their business – their employees. Listening provides the crucial foundation for strong leadership and thriving organizations. For decades, many executives have fallen into the sand trap of believing that sound leadership means talking the loudest.  But truly strong leaders are starting to realize that listening to others is the key to success.
Effective listening is the key to building trust and respect, creating a deeper sense of connection, and cultivating a shared consciousness across the organization – all of which lead to increased commitment, engagement and productivity.   This, in turn, translates into better business outcomes.

Waggl helps leaders listen by providing an efficient and innovative way to gather actionable insight and create alignment across the entire organization.  If you’d like to learn more, request a demo today.