When Leaders Don’t Listen

It’s great to work with a leader who knows a lot. It’s absolutely terrible to work for a leader who knows it all. 

I want you to pay particular to the wording of those two sentences. When a leader knows a lot they work WITH their people to create an environment of growth and success. When a leader knows it all they tend to be far more “boss” like than leader like. They don’t work with their people, they expect their people to work FOR them. 

Leaders who believe they already know it all don’t listen to their people. They don’t need to because the only reason anyone actually listens is to learn something. When you have nothing to learn you have no need to listen. 

It’s bad for anyone not to listen. The most successful people learn something new almost every single day. Much of what they learn they learn by listening. When people in leadership positions don’t listen the results can be disastrous. 

Leaders who don’t listen demoralize their people. Leaders who don’t listen have no way of knowing how to help their people stay motivated. Leaders who don’t listen have no way of showing their people that they care. Leaders who don’t listen will never earn the commitment of their people. 

Leaders who don’t listen have to rely on compliance instead of commitment. They will need to try and force productivity out of their people. They may eventually get some work out of them but the quality and quantity of that work will be less than idea.

Compliance will never take an organization and it’s people to the places where commitment can go. 

It is nearly impossible to become a great leader without being a great communicator. But leaders who don’t listen think communication is only about talking. So they talk and talk and talk. They tell people what to think, they tell them how to think it, and they tell them when to think it. 

Communication is also about listening. In fact, communication is mostly about listening. 

Leaders who do listen give themselves a chance to learn. They give themselves the opportunity to receive information from multiple sources and break it down into actionable tasks. 

Leaders who practice the art of listening receive feedback on their own performance as well as unbiased input about the performance of all members of their team. It allows them to create a truly inclusive organization based on performance not favoritism. 

Leaders who are willing to listen learn exactly how to show their people that they care about them. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their people and they find positions for them where they can succeed. 

Hearing is a gift from God but listening is a choice. Authentic Leaders make the choice to listen to their people, to their customers, to anyone who might help them lead even a little better. 

Have you made the choice to listen? If not it’s a simple choice, just look in the mirror and tell the person looking back that they have a lot to learn. Then start talking less and listening more because when it comes to listening one thing is certain…. if you’re talking then you’re most certainly NOT listening. 

Frustrated Followers

I’ve been fortunate for the vast majority of my career to work for and with leaders who were Authentic Leaders. They cared for their people, they were smart and they knew what they were doing. 

Except maybe for one guy. He was my first boss out of college. He didn’t seem to have a very high EQ and his IQ was virtually nonexistent. (Or so it appeared to me) He was functionally illiterate, his communication skills were subpar to say the least. 

But he was my boss. My boss! I had a brand new Engineering Degree and had been anointed by non other than myself as one of the smartest people on the planet. It was an impossible situation…I was a genius and my boss was not. So I set about fixing that injustice.

I decided, at least subconsciously, to be a “difficult” employee. Difficult might be a bit of an understatement…I was determined to make his life a living hell. I mean how hard could it be for a genius such as myself to chase this knucklehead out of the company. My goal was to do whatever was necessary for this guy to no longer be my boss.

I’ll spare you the ugly details of what I determined “difficult” to be. But he and the company we worked for had incredible staying power. Despite my best efforts they kept trying to find a way for us to work together and it took me two long years to finally reach my goal. 

I quit!

Apparently his 20 plus years at a family run company meant something to the owners. They also valued the skills I bought with me. 

It would be several years after I quit before I’d realize what a terrible employee I was. It would be a few more years before I’d realize what a terrible person I was to that boss. 

I’d made the horrible mistake of not seeing the value in someone different than me. My failure to see the value in another human being caused ME great frustration. I took that out on both my boss and any coworkers who happened to agree with him. 

That the man had certain “gaps” was never in doubt. My mistake was in thinking it was my job to expose those gaps. In reality part of my job was actually to fill those gaps. 

He was not technically proficient, I was. It was my job to help him use his strengths by filling his technical gaps. I failed at that…miserably. 

When your leader isn’t all that you think they should be don’t allow yourself to be frustrated. Don’t focus on their weaknesses, focus on their strengths. I can guarantee you that somebody saw those strengths and that’s why they are in the position that are in. Help them use their strengths by filling whatever gaps you can. 

Whether it’s in your job description or not you should understand that one of your roles is to support the other people in your organization. Especially those above you on the organizational chart. The only exception to that “rule” is if that support would include doing something illegal or unethical.

When you’re feeling frustrated by someone above you in your organization, or even someone at your level, remember this truth: being frustrated prevents you from using YOUR strengths. Being frustrated hurts YOU more than anyone else. 

So don’t focus on the things that frustrate you, focus instead on the things you can control. One of those things is helping the people who frustrate you to not frustrate you. That’s a whole lot more productive than constantly complaining. 

Privileged Leaders

There are all types of leaders in the world. Cleary, some are better than others. The worst however are what I would call Privileged Leaders. 

Authentic Servant Leaders see leading others to success as a privilege. Privileged Leaders believe holding a leadership position entitles them to “special” rules not available to those they think they’re leading. They live by the old saying “Rank has it’s privileges.” They make that old saying come to life by providing themselves with many privileges not available to the people they claim to be leading. 

Privileged Leaders will never have the commitment of the people they supposedly lead because they don’t think they need it. Without that commitment they simply cannot lead. 

Privileged Leaders are poor communicators because their different set of rules act as a wall between them and their people. They don’t understand the people they try to lead because they don’t care to understand the people they try to lead. 

They don’t value the people they are supposed to be leading because they see value only in themselves. They don’t listen to the people they hope are following them because…well because they don’t listen to anyone. 

Privileged Leaders believe that their title or position is what makes them special. They believe their income level makes them better human beings. 

Authentic Servant Leaders believe they aren’t special at all. They believe it’s the people they lead who are truly special. They value those people and seek out their advice. They listen, intently, to what they have to say. No amount of money, no title or position will ever make them think they are better than another human being. 

You’ll recognize a Privileged Leader the moment you see them. They will have placed themselves on a pedestal so high above the people they think they are leading that those people couldn’t follow if they wanted to. 

Authentic Servant Leaders make certain they stay close to their people. They lead from the front, they lead from the middle and sometimes they even lead from the rear. Whatever the case may be they lead from along side their people and never put themselves above them. 

Privileged Leaders have no way of learning how mistaken they are because they also believe they have nothing left to learn. They “know” every decision they make is the right decision simply because they made it. They don’t question themselves and woe to any person who dares to question their thinking. 

Authentic Servant Leaders know they will never know it all. They also know they don’t need to. They have a wealth of knowledge in the people who are committed to following them. They “tap into” that knowledge bank with great regularity for the benefit of their entire organization. They know that they could be wrong about virtually anything so they value having their decisions challenged. That challenge either confirms their thinking or causes them to change it, again to the benefit of the entire organization. 

If you’re working for a Privileged Leader then fasten your seat belt. It’s gonna be a rough ride. They won’t learn from their mistakes because they will never admit to them. They must either be forced out by an Authentic Servant Leader or the organization they are supposed to be leading will simply go the way of many failed organizations.

If you’re working with an Authentic Servant Leader then count your blessings, which will be many. Working for an Authentic Servant Leader gives you and your organization ample opportunities to grow. Make sure that you make the most of those opportunities.

What History Teaches

Whenever I hear of someone heading off to college who is planning to major in History my thoughts always go to “oh boy, taking on a ton of student loan debt for a low paying teaching job.”

I mean, what else do you do with a History Degree.

But then I start to think more and I am so grateful for anyone willing to teach History. It is history that teaches us everything we need to know to be successful.

In High School my least favorite class was Military History. (I attended a Military High School) I had a hard time figuring out why we were studying old battle plans and tactics from lost battles. I eventually came to understand that if we were ever required to lead a group of brave service members into battle the job wasn’t just to win the war. It was to bring the people we were charged with leading home alive.

As General George Patton frequently said, “it’s not the job of the American Solider to die for their country; the job of the American Solider is to make the other SOB die for theirs.”

Small pieces of historical knowledge can make a huge difference. It can prevent history from repeating itself. If Adolf Hitler had studied Napoleon’s battle plans from years earlier he likely would have not opened up a second front in Russia. If he had waited only a handful of months to attack it is very possible the outcome of World War 2 could have been different.

Companies are like countries when it comes to history. Those that are unwilling to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Emphasis on the doomed.

History can teach us what to do as well as what not to do. The problem is, if we don’t learn from history we tend to take the same shortcuts. Use the same level of thinking, say the same things, and do the identical stuff as the people who failed before us.

It’s fine to study successful companies. Following the practices of those who have succeeded before you makes perfect sense. But I also like to learn from companies that were highly successful right up until the time they weren’t.

I want to know what changed. I want to know what it was that caused them to go from great to good to downright bad.

It most often has to do with people. Mostly the people who run the company. History teaches us that the most common mistake they make is assuming that their future is an automatic extension of their past. Those organizations believe that because they are currently successful they will always be successful. They begin to take their success for granted. They begin to believe that their success is solely due to their efforts. They forget about all the people who have helped them along the way.

Successful companies and organizations do not fail the people leading them. The people leading them fail their companies and organizations.

History is full of examples of how organizations create sustainable success. It is also full of examples of what organizations did to kill their success.

Successful people learn from their mistakes, the most successful people, and organizations, learn from the mistakes of others. Those “lessons” are found in history. Are you willing to learn?

How Important is Control to a Leader?

Many people in Leadership positions believe leading is about control. Especially controlling the people they are supposed to be leading. People in leadership positions who don’t actually lead are really struggling with this great corporate experiment happening around the world that is called “Working from Home.”

Because they don’t actually lead they have little influence over the actions and attitudes of the people they are supposed to be leading. They have so few leadership skills that rather than attempt to earn the commitment of their people they seek to force their compliance.

But compliance requires control and that’s much harder to come by in a work from home environment. That’s why “leaders in title” only have so many issues with their people not being in the office and directly under their thumb. They can’t wait for a return to “normal.”

But they will have to wait because working from home is the new normal. The pretend leaders who hope to order their people back into the office have one of two choices. The first is to grow into an Authentic Leader and actually lead. The second is to join the growing heap of failed “leaders in title” only who couldn’t let go of the need to control every aspect of their employees workday.

People will eventually return to the office, in some form. Likely they will spend at least as much time working from home as working in an office environment. There will never be a time when rush hours look like the rush hours of “the before times.” There will never again be a time when large companies pile a few hundred employees into a large conference room simply because they can. Things will never again be exactly as they were.

This work from home experiment has been going on long enough that real data exists regarding productivity concerns. Most people are either as productive or more productive than when working in the office. In many cases where productivity has suffered it has suffered due to the “leader in title.” They attempt to reach through the phone or computer to control their people as if they were still in the office.

The people who are actually led while working from home seem to do just fine.

There was a time when “work-life balance” was the goal. That goal is gone. The new goal is “work-life integration” where employees have choices about when they get their work done. “Work-life integration” means the employees can run an errand in the middle of the day. It means they don’t have to make up some cockamamie excuse about why they didn’t immediately answer the phone.

“Work-life balance” is full of controls. “Work-life integration” focuses on positive outcomes. It eliminates the need for many of the tradition controls.

Here’s the deal…Authentic Leaders already know they control far fewer things than they thought they would before they became leaders. They have also learned they don’t have to control anyone to earn their commitment.

Control is unnecessary for an Authentic Leader. They have influence into the attitude, activities, and outcomes of each member of their organization. If you’re in a leadership position and your struggling with the “work from home” thing then it’s very possible that you’re trying to control things…and people beyond your control.

Stop trying to control people and start building relationships with them. It’s those relationships, built on trust, that will allow you to influence your people to productivity heights that control freaks can only dream of.

Leading With Integrity

So let’s get this out of the way right up front. If you’re not leading with integrity then you’re simply not leading.

You’re not leading because leading requires that someone is following you. A true follower will have some level of commitment to their leader. People can be forced to comply with someone in a leadership position but they cannot be forced to commit.

In fact, they cannot commit. It is not possible for one human being to truly commit to another human being that they do not trust. Integrity is the foundation upon which trust is built. Where there is no integrity there can be no trust.

Having integrity is a choice. It’s a choice to do what you said you would do, even if you no longer feel like doing it. You may have never thought of it like this but you have an “Integrity Bank.” Every time you do exactly what you committed to do you’ll receive a small deposit into that Credibility Bank. When you fail to honor a commitment, any commitment, you suffer a substantial withdrawal from your Credibility Bank.

That may not seem fair but that’s the way it works. You don’t need to have too many withdrawals to reach a zero balance in your bank. That means zero credibility and that means zero committed followers.

Authentic Leaders know that their most valuable “currency” is their credibility. They know that without it that can not have a positive influence on those they hope to lead. So they honor their commitments. They follow through. They keep their word. They don’t say yes when they need to say no.

Their people know that they can trust their leader. Their people know that their leader is committed to them so they can commit to their leader.

Every committed relationship is built on a foundation of integrity. It’s the single most important foundation in any relationship. What Authentic Leaders understand that many lesser leaders don’t is this one irrefutable fact….you either have integrity 100% of the time or you do not have integrity.

Integrity is a full-time gig. It’s not something you do at work. It’s not something you do at home. It’s not something you do with people who matter to you. It’s just something you do because it’s who you are. It’s part of your DNA.

Or it’s not. The great thing is that it’s a part of your DNA that you get to control. The only question is, will you choose to control it.

The Power of Questions

Many people have the belief that leaders give orders. They think leaders tell people what to do and how to do it. Sadly, that is true for far too many people in leadership positions.

Authentic Leaders however give few orders. They don’t bark out directions at people telling them exactly what to do. What Authentic Leaders actually do is ask questions. They ask questions to help their people grow. They ask questions to help their people learn. They ask questions to challenge their people’s thinking. More importantly, they ask questions to teach their people to challenge their own thinking.

They ask questions to help their people become and stay engaged. They ask questions to help their people feel like they are part of the team. And they ask questions to learn from their people.

Asking questions to help someone see how their thinking might be flawed is far more effective than telling someone they are wrong. Asking someone how they came to a particular conclusion is far more people valuing then telling them they don’t know what they are talking about.

Asking for input before making a big decision helps people be more supportive of the decision even if it wasn’t the decision they would have made.

Asking people for their ideas before dumping a change on them helps them feel as if they matter. It frequently makes the change more beneficial for everyone.

Authentic Leaders ask questions and they know the better the question the better the answer. The more questions they ask the more engaged their people become. Authentic Leaders know they can never stop learning. They also know they can’t learn anything by telling, they can only learn when asking.

Asking questions is a far more powerful way to lead then telling. But to real key to asking effective questions is listening well.

Authentic Leaders listen. They linger on the words of the person speaking until they are certain of what was said AND what was meant. They listen with the intent to understand instead of listening only to respond. They listen with focus and without distractions.

Glancing at your cell phone to make certain you’re not missing anything important guarantees you’ll miss something important from the person you’re speaking with. And you’ll make them feel anything but important. Your cell phone doesn’t help you listen more effectively and you’re only fooling yourself if you think it does.

Ask questions and listen. Listen to the exclusion of any other noise. You will learn far more than you think you will. You might even learn that your team is far more effective than you thought they were.