Not long ago we had a leadership conversation with Bernard Swanepoel – a leader that built Harmony into one of the largest gold companies in the world. His final leap was an attempted hostile takeover of Goldfields, which dominated business headlines for weeks and months, but ultimately failed.
During this conversation we asked Swanepoel what he would have done differently as a leader with an illustrious career of ups and downs. He didn’t answer that he should not have gone for Goldfields; or should have resigned earlier; or that he should have acquired business A rather than business B. His answer: I would listen more.
Think about this – “I would listen more”.
I have given this answer a lot of thought since that conversation. Perhaps you should too. If you are currently leading, try to listen more.
Very often when we become the top leader we somehow inherit verbal diarrhoea – we do most of the talking and we think people are listening. But you know what? More often than not they act like they are listening because you are the boss after all.
Why should leaders listen more? There are so many answers to this question. And every top leader will have endless input. I wish to come from a different angle.
The intensity of our listening may just be proportionate to our depth of caring or concern for what that person’s opinion of us is. On the caring view, the more we care about people around us the more we listen. When we don’t listen much the inference could be that we care little, or we care a hell of a lot about ourselves.
Why is it so difficult to listen? It really is. And when we think we have got it right we realise that we haven’t, because we are then listening to reply rather than to understand. We are so self-absorbed; so overwhelmed by our own challenges, or what I call our own “big world” that we simply don’t have sufficient energy to care, to listen intently or actively. We’d think, “my life is filled with challenges and opportunities, which to me are massive, big”. Plant these in another’s world; someone that leads an entire country or a national / international organisation and my “big world” seems very small. For a child wanting that treat right now or needing to do a bit of difficult homework, seems big. But for me working overtime to promote Authentic Leadership and eradicate toxic leadership outweighs the homework challenge.
So why don’t I really listen? Maybe it is because I think my world is huge and yours isn’t. To prove this point further. Feeling absorbed by your “big world”, if the CEO of your organisation – even if you’re not particularly fond of him – decided to confide in you with all his problems and more, would you listen? I’m not saying he is communicating the company strategy to you; he is telling you about the cash flow problem worth billions, or the difficult meetings with top politicians, and maybe a bit about how beautiful it is in the north of Italy where he goes for his yearly skiing holiday. Yes you would listen. Why? Because you don’t want to offend him…sure. But also, in your mind his world is big and important, compared to yours. Now walk away from him and face someone whose world is small compared to yours and see how difficult it is to listen intently – perhaps a conversation with your domestic or gardener, a junior employee.
The converse is true for the CEO. With all his challenges in his “big world”, if the President of his country sat him down to confide in him, would the CEO listen intently? Yes he would, probably for the same reasons.
The challenge comes in when the President of a nation does not see the context I’m describing here. If he hasn’t developed an ingrained character of listening with empathy before becoming the President he will likely stop listening. Why? Because his world is all consuming; it is huge. He would need extraordinary discipline and insight to stay clear of this trap; a Leadership Advisor to remind him.
Listening more intently sounds like an easy thing to do – I decide to listen more and then I do…..Well, no. It doesn’t work that way. It is a good habit that you need to adopt, and like most other good habits it takes practice, time, focus, energy and discipline. But, besides practicing it, work on the essence here; the core of the issue – learn to care about others; learn to view their “big world” as equal to yours, because it is to them, so it should be to you.
Read here 13 reasons why Adriaan is the ideal Leadership Advisor / Executive Coach for your leaders.
Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on firstname.lastname@example.org for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform.