Leaders are expected to know and understand their organization from the inside out and outside in. It’s a tall order and impossible if the leader isn’t a good listener. A barrier, even for smart leaders, is thinking they are better listeners than they are.
Fortunately, once a leader accepts that they need to improve their ability to listen, including who they should listen to (or not listen to), they can take immediate action. Myriad sources of advice and techniques are available to help anyone be a better listener. But the best technique, faithfully implemented can fall flat if a leader lacks the courage to truly hear what is being said.
Leaders who are great listeners are confident, and they also possess the courage to be vulnerable. While these attributes may appear paradoxical, each is essential, and both can be cultivated.
Confidence is as important as expertise
Confidence can be built up by acquiring knowledge and skill, but that sort of confidence can be shaken when someone who knows more or has more skill shows up. The confidence to know that one can step into novel situations, listen, learn, and make good decisions, is as valuable as expertise A leader who possesses confidence of this sort has no need to be the smartest, most knowledgeable person in the room because they trust themselves to learn and adapt to new information. Importantly, great leaders also trust themselves to change their minds when given information that contradicts what they previously thought. Letting go of what one previously relied upon as fact, is hard to do but impossible if the leader relies upon being right as a pillar of self-esteem.
When Carol Tomé, now chief executive officer of UPS, was the chief financial officer of The Home Depot, she often appeared on TV to talk about the company. Jim Cramer asked her in one interview how she and her colleagues knew what customers would want for the upcoming holiday season. Her answer was priceless. She said, “We get belly to belly with our customers.” Of course, Tomé is bright enough and experienced enough to use all sorts of data, but her willingness to get out of her office, both literally and mentally, gave her a critical edge. However, she and her colleagues had to be willing to listen for new information, not merely what confirmed their marketing analysis.
Courage amplifies good leadership
The courage to be vulnerable is helpful to learning, preventing mistakes, recovering from errors, and enlisting help. Fear of being judged for decisions, especially when they prove to be bad decisions, can cause people to avoid dealing with problems when they are small and simpler to manage.
Robert, the CEO of a $3B company, made the mistake of ignoring feedback from his board about Steve, the CFO. So fearful of admitting that he’d made a hiring mistake and of harsh judgment by the board, he clung to a myriad of flimsy reasons to keep Steve in the role. Finally, the board chair said to Robert, “We think that your judgment is a bigger problem than Steve’s inadequacies.”
It’s easy to think that Robert isn’t all that smart, but that’s not true. His mistake was ignoring information that made him feel personally vulnerable. Later, he admitted that he had been rationalizing instead of listening. This is not an uncommon trap that leads even smart people to make bad decisions; the trap of needing to be right.
Listening with confidence and courage is preventative and corrective
Great leaders wade into unfamiliar or even familiar, territory with the confidence that they can learn and the courage to admit what they don’t know. Even very good leaders make mistakes but when they do, confidence and courage allows them to listen, accept even unpleasant information, and correct their errors before they lead to a crisis.
This post originally appeared in Forbes.