If You Want to be a Better Leader Try This.

Stephen Covey tells us in his brilliant book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that we should seek first to understand and then me understood. That is so critically important to influencing people it hardly bears close examination.

One of the biggest challenges business leaders have is the characteristics that got them to a position of leadership quite often do not help them to be as effective as they could be once they get there. I’m talking about a strong level of self-belief and confidence that they know more than everyone else. They may well be the smartest person in the room, but that does not mean they have a better understanding of what’s really going on in all the critical parts of the business.

Their “smarts” really come into play after they fully understand what’s happening and for that to happen two things need to be in place. First, they must create a culture in which everyone is willing to be candid about what they see occurring with fear of retribution or any other for of negative response from their supervisors at all levels, and secondly, everyone (not just the CEO) needs to develop the skill of listening.

It’s interesting that at school we are taught to read and write but we’re not taught to listen despite it being at the beginning of the decision-making process. More often than not bad decisions are made because bad listening took place on the front end.

A big point that Covey makes is that if you want to influence someone you must first establish an empathic relationship. To do that you need to see things from their perspective. That does not mean you must agree with them, it simply means you must understand their perspective. When they sense that you are “one their page” to use a popular cliché it is must easier for them to be willing to see things from your perspective as well. This is the start of being in a position of influence.

An excellent article published in the McKinsey Quarterly February 2012 supports this idea:

One of the best listeners I have ever observed was the chief operating officer (COO) of a large medical institution. He once told me that he couldn’t run an operation as complex as a hospital without seeking input from people at all levels of the staff—from the chief of surgery to the custodial crew. Part of what made him so effective, and so appealing as a manager, was that he let everyone around him know he believed each of them had something unique to contribute. The respect he showed them was reciprocated, and it helped fuel an environment where good ideas routinely came from throughout the institution.

From Bernard T. Ferrari, The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening, McKinsey Quarterly February 2012

The advice is very straight forward. You will become a better leader and decision maker when you become a better listener.

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