Although Richard Branson frequently points to listening as an absolutely critical factor in the success of Virgin, you really don’t need Richard Branson to tell you that listening is key. Simply look back over the managers you’ve worked with over the years and split them into two columns – in the right column write the names of those who really listened to you, made sure they were interested in what you had to say and gave you a chance to say it, and in the left column put everyone else. Spot the pattern? I guarantee that the best managers, the ones who really inspired you, will all be in the right hand column.

Shut up and listen so they can open up and deliver

When it comes to leaders, how well they listen sorts the wheat from the chaff. Why? Because leaders who really listen get the most important principle of leadership – they understand that it’s not about them! They have the wisdom to shut up and listen so their teams can open up and deliver.

Let’s face it, nobody’s perfect. I’ve messed this one up in the past. One of my strengths is ideas and creativity. I can remember one team in particular where we made massive strides forward in safety and quality in only a few months. It was dramatic. But we didn’t sustain it – because it was all based on my ideas and my perspective. I had an opinion and I was vocal about it. I gave clear direction. I made decisions. I convinced others it was the right way to go, and in truth they were good ideas. We made real progress, but they were my ideas, not theirs – and so they didn’t last.

Okay – let’s be fair, listening isn’t all there is to do with leadership. It’s not the silver bullet that solves all leadership dilemmas. But it’s close – and when it comes to leadership it’s the best place to start.

Many people have written a great deal about listening skills. I’m not at all convinced they are barking up the right tree. Personally, I think that describing listening as a skill is something of a cop-out, because I believe listening isn’t a skill – it’s a choice.

Listening is a choice

When you are communicating with someone the key question is where is the focus of your attention? Is it upon you and your ideas or is it upon them and their ideas? Are you listening with the intent to understand what they are saying, or are you simply ‘listening’ with the intent to be able to reply?

If you have the single most important principle of leadership embedded in your thinking then the focus of your attention is upon them because you know that right then it’s not about you! If the focus of your attention is upon them then YOU ARE TRULY LISTENING! Not queuing to get in, not working out what you are going to say next, not thinking about what you need to get done before you go home, and certainly not trying to type your next email hoping you can deal with both things quickly and get on with your day.

Listening is a choice. The most important choice a leader will ever make. So have you chosen to listen – or not?

Now if you really want to get the best out of your team, get out there – and give your team a really good listening to!

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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.