PSEL: Leading by Listening

Several incidents in recent months are making me realize that one of the challenges of leadership, particularly leading groups of motivated individuals, is knowing how to pull back and make sure everyone has a chance to contribute.

I’ve been in multiple rounds of group brainstorming and design activities recently (the kind where you build a tower made of spaghetti), and I notice that unless the moderators advise on some ground rules, the usual result is that idea first shouted out, or the one proposed by the socially dominant person in the hierarchy, is the only one developed. In fact the worst spaghetti tower designs are usually those done by all CEO teams.

The lesson we’re supposed to learn is to rapid prototype and work through multiple ideas, but I think it’s also learning to listen to and respect people’s expertise. Susan Cain in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking points out that a Harvard Business School (HBS) exercise has the same issues. In this case, the goal is to explain which items should be salvaged from a wreck in the wilderness. Again the most dominant voice usually “wins” even if a quieter group member actually has some experiene in the wilderness. Although group works is supposed to “leverage diverse voices”, in this case the most expert voice was lost.

One of my own challenges has been to learn to listen to others more carefully and also to create an atmosphere where people are willing to tell me what they really think. In the past, I’ve sometimes been an overlooked voice, so it’s ironic that I am not always a good listener when I have some authority. I have to confess that I often have preconceived notions of what’s right and it can be hard to suspend judgement and listen.

But the times I have been able to understand what the other person was saying have all led to much better outcomes. Sometimes my role as leader isn’t to talk to be create a place where everyone can talk.

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One Response to PSEL: Leading by Listening

  1. psk123 says:

    Elizabeth, just want you to know how much I enjoyed reading your entries. I read your last entry soon after you posted, and I wanted to pass along that I had watched the movie that weekend, too! What a great movie! Did you know that there are leadership studies based on the movie? For example: a quote from: Ferris Bueller on Informal Leadership, asks:

    How does Ferris do it? He holds no position of authority. He is not rich and/or powerful nor is he related to anyone who is. Whether it’s his charisma, caring nature, or overall personality, Ferris has the “it” factor. If he offers an opinion, people will listen and follow.

    Those in a leadership position must be mindful of who their informal leaders. To identify these informal leaders, Jon Katzenbach suggests spending time throughout the organization. A personnel file will not list the information you need; it’s with the people. “Informal leaders who are the outstanding ones,” Jon states, “are actually easy to identify because everyone knows who they are.”

    It’s interesting to apply the concept of informal leaders from the obviousness in Ferris Bueller to your spaghetti tower exercise. Who do we turn to for information or to get things accomplished and who do we have to report to? Such a difference. I agree, it’s hard to be receptive and suspend judgement. Haven’t we been taught to voice our opinion and stand up for what we believe in? It’s hard to step back.

    I’m going to take a look at the book you recommended to not only look to others, but also to help myself open up.

    Finally, let me know when you watch The Breakfast Club – another 80s movie that has to have strong ties to leadership discussions.

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