Monday, 11 April 2011

Leading as listening - what is your image?

The UK Coalition Government is beginning a two month ‘listening exercise’ about their proposed changes to how the National Health Service is managed (see for details). There is much that is being written about the politics of this decision (see here for a ‘Mills & Boon’ description: for example) – but I would like to focus on what we mean by... listening... and leadership.

Most of us know what good listening involves. When I pose the question to groups “how do we know when someone is really listening to us?” they have no trouble filling a flip chart or two with the most detailed descriptions of behaviour, body language, phrases used and so forth. But when I ask the question around how well their leaders listen to them, the response is very mixed. Many people report leaders who may say they listen but give little evidence of having done so. Some leaders just don’t listen very well, others do it well at the time but do not follow it up with any action. This all leaves me wondering why is it that most leaders usually know how to listen but often appear to fall short of doing it effectively?

Perhaps many leaders think that it is the job of their followers to listen to them, not the other way around. The images that many people have of leaders are either
  • someone ‘leading from the front’, with their ears turned away from their followers, or of 
  • someone at the front of a room presenting to people or of 
  • a general in a tent somewhere well behind the lines directing the troops like a chess game, or a 
  • a thought leader, researching and ruminating in dark laptop light filled room. 
None of these images conjure up an image of listening leader.
  • What picture pops into your mind when you think of a leader? 
  • Does this image conform to what kind of leader you are... or want to be? 
  • If you think deliberately of a listening leader, what image now comes to mind? 
But of course, leadership may only be about 10% listening... what do you think? Perhaps the Government is seeing their listening exercise is being much more about telling, selling & explaining than about genuinely taking on board the concerns of NHS staff and patients – time will tell.
  • How much of your leadership is about listening...? 
  • How much of your leadership would you like to be about listening? 
  • Does your image of leadership match this?

1 comment:

  1. Reading your post reminded me of Umair Haque's article on "listening up" and this excerpt:

    "Listening up means empowering as many people inside your organization as possible to spend time talking to your customers to have those conversations, and empowering them to talk to one another openly."

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who described an example in a very open and new organisation where someone came up to the manager and said can I put forward proposals for marketing our stuff. The manager said, go and do it and send it back to me when you've completed it. Two weeks later, the manager contacts the person and asks how they're getting on. The person responded that the manager hadn't "empowered" them so they hadn't felt confident enough of putting forward the proposal.

    People have different learning styles and a manager telling people that they're open to feedback and that their people should just do it and ask for forgiveness rather than permission is not necessarily "listening", it's empowering people as you would wish to be empowered. Maybe what we forget is that a massive part of listening is understanding - what motivates people, how they learn...what makes them feel empowered?