It’s commonplace for leadership advocates and scholars to include listening in their lists of “what makes a good leader.” But why would a person in a position of leadership need to listen? If a group chooses a leader because they believe in the leader’s abilities, does the leader still have an obligation to listen? Will listening make the leader a better leader?
My answer is yes. Here’s why.
Effective leadership rests on a notion of reciprocity. Leaders assume responsibilities and risks. Their success rests on the loyalty of those whose work supports the leader. This relationship works best when it’s mutually supportive. Indeed, experimental evidence strongly bears this out.
In a recent public goods game, my co-authors and I conducted an experiment where leaders offer recommendations to non-leaders, attempting to convince non-leaders to follow the advice. Following the advice was beneficial to the group, but, for any individual, there is an incentive to ignore the advice and free ride on the cooperation of others.
In this setting, the results are very strong: As soon as non-leaders observe that leaders are not acting for the group, cooperation decays and group collaboration, always fragile, falls apart.
Leaders cannot be effective without reciprocity. More than this, they cannot reciprocate without listening.
Listening helps leaders avoid unforced errors. All leaders will make mistakes, but it’s important to avoid making unnecessary mistakes.
Perhaps the most common mistake made by leaders is the result of hubris, thinking they know the answers because they have experience as a leader. Sometimes they do know the answers, but not always. A new leader will hear plenty of objections to change. Some objections may be important; others not so much. Only by listening, and listening carefully, will the leader sort out whether objections are valid, or not. Listening with a “tin ear,” ignoring valid objections, creates new problems — the change will likely fail, and followers in the organization will conclude that the leader isn’t willing to learn from them.
Leaders who refer to how “things were done” at their former position also make unforced errors. They alienate their potential followers who are looking for a leader who will accept how things are first, and then seek to improve. Starting from the view that things are better somewhere else and improvement will occur only by imitating the leader’s former experience, invalidates and alienates the organizational structure and people in place in the here and now. This puts the leader in a deep hole and makes the job of changing the organization harder than it would otherwise be.
In short, leadership without authoritarian measures is all about persuasion, using the tools of communication and inspiration to obtain results for the good of a group. Effective leaders listen, reciprocate, and learn.