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Leadership: Listening and Connecting

'A Fo Ben Bid Bont' 

"He who would be a leader must also be a bridge". The Mabinogion. Welsh Folk Tales

Culture starts with the conduct of leaders. Good ones impact their organisations by intelligence, powers of analysis, application of ferocious insight, logic, work ethic, rhetorical eloquence and more. Nowadays they must also connect with their people in a thoughtful, empathetic way and for this, listening is the key.  Using the rational mind is an awesome tool – but only at the right time. Empathy is required at other times, and it is listening that enables this.


As an act of respecting the “other”, it also embodies diversity, the great preoccupation of our time. It is a vital tool in the armoury of the leader. To win hearts and minds – and to earn the right to be listened to – one must first listen. 

'Only connect'

EM Forster Howards End

More and more, people ask of work that they “bring their whole selves”; that they be heard. Young people into the workplace know they matter from day one. Raised with the democratisation of all voices on the web, they have been raised to feel a sense of their own voice.  "Serving their time" is not always something they have the patience for. - and to harness their energy, a different psychological contract with the employer is needed. They want a voice at the table straight away. Psychological safety is seen as “permission for candour”[3] where people can be honest, direct – listened to - at work.  

Listening to them starts to connect leaders with the freeing "humility of doubt" – rather than the bombastic proclaiming sometimes heard forcefully from leaders and which we find unconvincing nowadays. Maintaining the silence to listen, the possibility of not knowing, is forceful in its effect on others.   Authority-based models of leadership are falling away, together with their dependence on always “knowing” - and on the hyper-rational. You can’t rationalise away emotion; the workplace, like life, is full of human beings with all their insight, intuition, feeling and sometimes messiness. Colleagues like families are driven off emotion. Doing away with emotion in business - or leaving it in the HR department – is not a model that works.  A successful business requires loyalty, inspiration, appreciation, drive, passion, thrust. These are feelings. People are not machines; to lead them, to resolve their conflicts, to improve their productivity – you need to demonstrate you understand and can empathise with them.  

When leaders listen, they change and they grow – they make space, they take in, they are nourished – this is metabolic listening. Listening opens the door to a learning experience and a new way of being - leaders can admit they are not omniscient; they don’t own the right way to do things - humility and acknowledgement of fallibility creates a culture for everyone to grow and thrive. This is the acknowledgement of collective wisdom in Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” 1. In creating listening cultures, teams function better, trust each other, accept both strengths and weaknesses and work smoothly with those who are very different. Deep, “metabolic” listening enables deeply those being listened to - and transforms the listener. 

1   Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team

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