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The Most Important Leadership Skill

If you were to ask what the most important skill is that a leader can have, you would get numerous opinions, and not too many people would put listening at the top of the list. But actually, time and research have shown that listening leads the way to great leadership.

Listening is the basis for so many other skills and traits necessary for leadership. It’s a big learning curve for most of us though, because listening requires us to be more present, attentive, engaged, open, and flexible. Bridgette Hyacinth correctly says, “Good listening skills in this digital era, due to information overload and shortened attention spans, is fast becoming an endangered species. Listening involves paying attention and making nonverbal cues, appropriate to what is being said.”


I am sure you have done this many times. We often start conversations, but we don’t truly listen to what others have to say. We never stop talking, or we are so busy crafting our own reply to what we assume they will say when they have the good sense to stop talking. We must learn with a true intent to listen and understand. In fact, Peter Drucker wisely observed, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said.”


Listening builds the foundation for good relationships by showing you care. You can't display empathy or emotional intelligence if you do not listen. The quality of our listening determines the quality of our influence. The people who work with you want to be heard and respected. Listening exhibits that kind of respect and builds trust. Increased trust and respect lead to more motivated and committed team members.


We retain about 25 percent of what we hear, not because that’s all we can. It’s because we are too busy and lack skills in listening. This is unfortunate because without listening well, we will never gain a complete understanding of situations. We will waste time solving the wrong problem or merely addressing a symptom, not the root cause. We will cause more problems and worse problems. Not too distant history shows us that corporations like Blackberry, Kodak, and Nokia paid incredible prices for leadership that didn’t listen. Their leaders operated in a bubble and simply believed their own opinions. But the greater your success, the more you need to stay in touch with fresh opinions and perspectives and welcome honest feedback. The more successful you are, the more you need pushback. Listening to raw truth is the best way to make well-informed decisions and steer the organization in the right direction. Good leaders are active listeners. " Leaders who don't listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say,” says Andy Stanley. True integrity starts with listening; listening to those around you and to your own “still, small voice.” As a leader your job is to encourage others around you to be open and honest, knowing there will be no negative consequences for sharing. If you do not listen, you will not grow.


Poor communication comes with a high price tag. It accounts for businesses losing millions of dollars each year. Relationships are lost and everyone suffers. It is imperative to learn to listen. Most of us talk too much, and we aren’t learning when we are talking.


Here’s a simple process that can help us develop the significant skill of listening. Pay attention to your posture and position. Try to sit where your focus is people, not distractions. If you are in a room with a television, sit with you back to the TV, or make sure it is off when you are trying to have a conversation. Make certain to have focused eye contact. Turn your cell phone off or put it away. Repeat what you’ve heard. This is active listening. Listen and repeat back what you believe you heard. It allows for immediate clarification and eliminates misunderstanding when you say something like, “I hear you saying…” They can affirm or adjust and will feel valued.


When you are certain you have understood, confirm what the other person is saying. It might take a couple of attempts to gain 100% clarity, but it will be worth it. You will have made progress in your situation, you will have learned, and you will have shown value to the other person and strengthened the relationship. Conclude with a question: Is there something I can do to help? Or… Is there anything else you think I should know? One of the greatest gifts you can give the people in your life is to value them by listening to them. You’ll discover it’s a great gift for you as well, and your leadership will grow exponentially.

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