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If listening is not the most important skill in a leader's toolbox - what is it? (Listening - part 1)

If listening is not the most important skill in a leader's toolbox - what is it? (Listening - part 1)

Despite what so many would have us believe, listening is not the most important skill in a great leaders toolbox.

Don’t get me wrong – listening is essential. Richard Branson frequently points to listening as an absolutely critical factor in the success of Virgin.

But we don’t need Richard Branson to tell us this – look back over all the bosses you’ve ever had and split them into two columns – in the right column write the names of those who really listened to you, made sure they were interested in what you had to say and gave you a chance to say it, and in the left column put everyone else. Spot the pattern? I guarantee that your best bosses are on the right hand side. Nobody’s perfect, but we believe listening is one of the biggest factors when it comes to sorting the wheat from the chaff.   Why? Because leaders who listen get the most important principle of leadership – it’s not about them! They have the wisdom to shut up and listen and so their teams open up and deliver.

I’ve messed this one up in the past. One of my strengths is ideas and creativity. I can remember one team in particular where we made massive strides forward in safety and quality in only a few months. It was dramatic. But we didn’t sustain it – because it was all based on my ideas and my perspective. I had an opinion and I was vocal about it. I gave clear direction. I made decisions. I convinced others it was the right way to go, and to be frank they were good ideas. We made real progress, but they were my ideas, not theirs - and so they didn’t last.

Okay – let’s be fair, listening isn’t all there is to do with leadership. It’s not the silver bullet that solves all leadership dilemmas. But it’s close – and when it comes to leadership it’s the only place to start.

So if listening is not the most important skill in a great leaders toolbox then what is it? 

Personally, I think that describing listening as a skill is something of a cop-out, because I believe listening is a choice.

When you are communicating with someone the key question is where is the focus of your attention? Is it upon you and what you think or is it upon them and what they have to say?

If you have the single most important principle of leadership embedded in your thinking then the focus of your attention is upon them. If it’s upon them then YOU ARE TRULY LISTENING! Not queuing to get in, not working out what you are going to say next, not thinking about what you need to get done before you go home, not trying to type your next email hoping you can deal with both things quickly and get on with your day.

Listening is a choice. The most important choice a leader will ever make. So have you chosen to listen – or not?

Now go - and give your team a really good listening to!

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