Communication Conversations Dialogue Leadership Role Model

The number one skill that separates you from the rest

You will never be a great leader if you don’t know how to listen well to people. 

Do you like to win? 

Beating the competition in sports, business, debates, arguments, beating the budget, your own performance, brain, and life?

Winning feels good. That intensely satisfying feeling of accomplishment outperforming yourself or somebody else.

Most successful executives love to win. 

Take a look at profiles of executive teams, and you will often see an overrepresentation of leaders who love competition and winning.

In some of those profiles, a dominating ‘fiery red energy’ personifies these people. One instrument, Insights, uses the tagline ‘Be Brief. Be Bright. Be Gone’ to describe the desired behavior they would like to see in others.

“Be Brief. Be Bright. Be Gone.”

Meaning: Get to the point quickly. Show that you’re smart. Please don’t waste my time with fluffy, long-winded content that doesn’t get to the end. Most of all, make sure you listen to me when I talk. Because I’m the clever one here.

“Do as I say, not as I do.”

I’m sure somebody pops into your head while you read this. Most likely male. Correct? Ok, that’s not fair, but probably not untrue either.

For a long time, this dominating fiery red energy was fine. It drove company performance, increased profits, and satisfied its owners/shareholders. People with that style justified their behavior by stating that nothing would get done and accomplished otherwise, and no money would be made.

Profit before purpose.

In many places, it’s still that way. Diversity, but even more so, inclusion, has a long, long journey (or quest) ahead of it. 

Many company managers continue to act in the spirit of “Do as I say, not as I do.” While they try to convince everyone they’re inclusive, deep inside, they love power, don’t know how to be inclusive, or it’s their unconscious bias.

These managers believe that accomplishing the most popular diversity metrics resolves everything. Ultimately, it’s about winning, and beating the metric is a way of winning.

For example, do you believe the diversity issue has been resolved when you can demonstrate that a “50% female executive” ratio has been reached? 

Will the number of female CEOs then also be 50%, or are we still dealing with a significant number of white, middle-aged men who love power and hold CEO jobs?

Will true inclusion and diversity of thought exist, or are we just chasing a number? 

Perhaps I’m overcritical here, but when I watch these pale, male, and stale (luckily, I have a little ‘teint’) men in the boardrooms, I still see a lot of male-dominating energy operating based on fear, unaware that:

“Fear confines; Freedom expands.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m optimistic, but not that optimistic. It may take a while. Those men need to retire, and more female CEOs need to be appointed before we see real inclusion. It’s not a matter of numbers; it’s a matter of determination, patience, and true inclusion.

The real point here is that those companies that are able to create a culture where leaders are coachable, show they care, allow people to think for themselves, know how to listen generatively, and are inclusive in their decision-making are the real ‘winners.’

Care. Coach. Think. Listen. Include. Decide. Feedback.

This is a solid list of qualities great leaders demonstrate. These are the so-called ‘soft’ skills. Soft skills. Soft. Skills. If you still use this ‘soft’ term for skills that make all the difference, I suggest you drop the term altogether. It takes a lot of work to acquire and continuously role-model these skills. It takes a lot of work to build a culture around these skills. It’s hard to do, period.

That brings me to the one ‘hard’ skill that ties all of this together — a skill that’s unbelievably hard for most humans to master. 

That skill is listening; generative listening.

Here’s why:

  • You can only show you care by listening.
  • You can only be a good coach by listening.
  • You can only build a thinking environment where people think for themselves by listening.
  • You can only be inclusive by listening.
  • You can only make optimal decisions by listening.
  • You can only provide good feedback by listening.
  • You can only communicate well by listening.

You will never be a great leader if you often interrupt and don’t allow people to think and complete their sentences. 

You will never be a great leader if it’s clear to your conversation partner that you’re not hearing what they’re saying, waiting for them to complete their sentence. 

You will never be a great leader if you don’t know how to listen well to people. 

Now that we move from the SELF section to the LEADER section next week, I want to spend a few words on the art and science of listening. If you have wondered how to be a more effective leader, ask people you trust with their feedback this question:

How well do I listen to what you have to say?
How well do I listen in meetings?
Would you recommend me as a good listener to others?

That last one is the Net Promotor Score of Good Listeners. NPSGL. For the record, I just made this up.

I’ve always considered myself a good listener, but I’m not a good listener to everyone. I do a better job when I get paid to listen to clients than when I’m having conversations with family and friends. This was an important lesson I had to learn. My NPSGL with family and friends is a bit lower.

With clients, I do a reasonably good job of positioning myself inside their heads, trying to understand what they have to say, reading between the lines, and understanding the context.

That is also generative listening.

With friends and family, I listen more passively, remain in my own head, think about what I want to say, interrupt, and not always show genuine and caring interest in the words they share with me. 

I think I’m listening, but I’m having a superficial dialogue at best and just downloading words at worst. I’m not alone.

Many people have this distinction between friends, family, colleagues, supervisors, and clients. People ‘listen’ better when there’s a power dynamic in the form of position or money. As soon as that power dynamic disappears, the listening gets worse.

But doesn’t everybody deserve the best of your listening skills ability? 

Of course. 

As Stephen Covey has taught us, ‘Seek to understand first before you want to be understood. ‘ If everybody led with that intention, relationships, teams, companies, countries, and world peace would be better today.

As we close this section on self and dig deeper into leadership, I hope you will, first and foremost, be a great listener. If you are known as a great generative listener, you are halfway to becoming a great leader.

Your turn: How well do you listen?


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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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