Dr. James O’Toole, the Daniels Distinguished Chair of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and the bestselling author of eighteen books, has become well known for his work in understanding corporate culture and the traits of leadership. “The true leader is a listener,” he wrote. “The leader listens to the ideas, needs, aspirations and wishes of the followers and then within the context of his or her own well developed system of beliefs responds to these in the appropriate fashion.”
Leadership begins with listening. In order to move forward you have to know where you are beginning, and that requires the ability to listen. Not just hear, but really listen. For many people that is not an easy thing to do. They are so excited about expressing their own thoughts and ideas that they don’t take the time to actually listen to what other people are saying.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn that the number-one source of quotes is the Bible, the second most quoted source is the Bard, William Shakespeare. And the third may well be Mr. or Mrs. Anonymous. There is a wonderful Turkish proverb that reminds us to “Listen a hundred times, ponder a thousand times—speak once.”
A former major league baseball player and scout named John Young grew up in the decaying section of Los Angeles known as South Central. That neighborhood had once sent a stream of African-American athletes to the major leagues, but by the early 1980s that flow had stopped. Young wondered why and started speaking to members of the community. He listened carefully to their answers. He was told that kids in that area between the ages of thirteen and sixteen quit playing baseball because after Little League there were no organized programs for them. This caused them to turn to other sports—but also to drugs and gangs. As Young learned, the same thing was happening in inner cities throughout the United States. So with little money and few resources, Young founded a program that he named RBI, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. From coast to coast volunteers began building baseball fields in vacant lots. Eventually major league baseball got excited about the concept and became a primary sponsor of the program. Today, in 200 American cities more than 200,000 boys and girls are participating in RBI programs. While Young used the lure of baseball to bring kids into RBI he expanded beyond the fields of dreams to include year-round educational programs, peer mentoring, and even vocational training. John Young had no special organizational skills when he founded RBI, but he recognized a problem in his community, asked questions and listened carefully to the answers, and then set out to build a program that would teach kids the skills they needed to succeed in baseball and, much more important, in life.
Leadership absolutely requires a respectful exchange of information, and that means listening as well as talking. The legendary corporate executive Lee Iacocca, who created some of the most successful models in automotive history while at Ford and then transformed Chrysler, which was on the edge of bankruptcy, into an industry leader, once lamented, “I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk.”
The legendary physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was known as one of the most provocative public speakers in the nation, but even he appreciated the importance of listening, reminding people that “It is in the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” And it was Abraham Lincoln who gave us a very important reason to simply stop talking and listen, pointing out, “It is better to be silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and dispel all doubt.”
He gave me three pieces of advice when I became provost: “Listen, listen and listen.”
—Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, on Richard Levin, president of Yale University
Ironically, listening is a skill that often has to be learned and practiced. And for some people, that’s difficult. In fact, the actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith was hired by Yale University to teach its medical students and by New York University to teach its law students the art of listening. As she told them, “Listening is not just hearing what someone tells you word for word. You have to listen with a heart. It is very hard work.”
In his acceptance speech in November 2008, the newly elected president, Barack Obama, told a huge crowd that “I will listen to you—especially when we disagree.” And later he added, “As Lincoln said in his first inaugural address, to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.’ And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help.”
The president of Yale University, Richard Levin, has become renowned for his ability to nurture academic leaders. When his provost, Susan Hockfield, was appointed president of MIT, she admitted, “He gave me three pieces of advice when I became provost: ‘Listen, listen and listen.’” And Levin himself said, “Listening is the first rule of managing.”
When we talk about listening as the key to leadership, clearly we mean more than the spoken word. Jack Welch earned a reputation as General Electric’s chairman as one of America’s most innovative and effective leaders, and he was particularly vocal about listening to new ideas. He wondered why some executives would spend a considerable amount of effort and money to assemble a great workforce—and then refuse to listen to those same people. He believed that the best thing he could do was listen with respect to those people he had hired. In fact, he created a culture at GE where people were rewarded for thinking outside the box and coming up with innovative ideas. And even when an idea failed, even if it cost the company millions of dollars, he still rewarded those people. When asked about that he said, “It is a badge of honor to get good ideas from someone else.”
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
—His Holiness, the Dalai Lama
Copyright © 2012 by Dr. Sanjiv Chopra with David Fisher