11. Listen to All and Take Your Call – 21 Success Sutras for Leaders

Chapter Eleven

Listen to All and Take Your Call

Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable—and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening.


Peter Nulty, National Business Hall of Fame, Fortune Magazine

Good leaders are good decision-makers. They know how to make decisions. They also know that all decisions may not deliver the desired results. Yet they gather extensive information by listening to all quarters so as to make the best decision to achieve organizational objectives. Hence, we will discuss listening, which is closely related to soft skills, in this chapter.

There are four pillars of business communication—speaking, listening, writing and reading. Any successful professional must be competent in these four aspects. Although these four are equally important, it is listening that takes precedence among them, even for leaders. According to the listening expert Dr Lyman K. Steil of the University of Minnesota,1 Americans spend most of their communication time listening, followed by speaking, then reading, and last, by writing.

‘Communication isn’t just speaking and writing. The forgotten part of it for most people … is listening’ (Axley 1996:77). Axley also states that studies have shown that a large percentage of people listen less effectively than they believe, with many being poor listeners. In addition, the research report by Atwater (1992) reveals that more than 85 per cent rate themselves as average or worse listeners, and fewer than 5 per cent rate themselves as excellent. It is clear that most people are either average or poor listeners.

Newkirk and Linden (1982) unfold three listening types: time wasters, dissonance reducers and active listeners. Time wasters mostly day dream; dissonance reducers encounter conflict when loaded with new information that is inconsistent with what they know; and finally, active listeners pay attention not only to the messages delivered by the speakers, but also to other hidden aspects such as emotions, egos and feelings, which are known as the hidden data of communication.

Listening is a Soft Skill

You learn when you listen. You earn when you listen—not just money, but respect.

Harvey Mackay

Listening is a soft skill. When you listen, you respect the other person and it also shows your keen interest to learn. Wilson rightly said, ‘Listening is the ultimate way to show someone respect.’ Hence, when you want to show respect to another person, listen attentively as it builds bridges. During communication, it is necessary to maintain eye contact and radiate warmth in order to connect with others easily. It is said that 80 per cent of a leader’s success depends on listening. When you observe American President Barack Obama, you will see that he is a great listener who often smiles and connects with people easily.

Stephen R. Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, reveals that listening is one of the great habits. He states, ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ Hence, listening is definitely an effective ingredient of leadership. If bosses didn’t listen to their team members and educators didn’t listen to students, could they excel as good role models? Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler Corporation, said,

I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk (http://www.leadershipnow.com/listening-quotes.html).

It is true that real communication goes in both directions and involves cooperation between senders and receivers. That means between speakers and listeners. The truth is that listening is more challenging than speaking.

Educators and Listening

Educators must lend their ears to their students. Students often like to express their ideas and insights about the subject in the classroom. It provides multiple shades and perspectives to others, and enriches the knowledge of the entire classroom. By encouraging such students who like to share their viewpoints on a specific subject, educators not only encourage the students by respecting their viewpoints, but also enrich the classroom ambience. When some students express themselves, others also join in and explain their perspectives on the topic. It leads to an exchange of knowledge, thus generating more information and greater knowledge. Finally, educators can facilitate students by adding extra elements about the subject. This is one of the best of ways of teaching in the classrooms.

Good listeners are good learners. The more you listen, the more you learn. The more you speak, the more you share with others. Hence, there has to be a balance between speaking and listening. This is especially true for leaders; they have to be listeners, as most of their time is spent listening to people.

Listening is Leadership

Listening is learning and listening is leadership. Listening and leadership are two sides of the same coin, as leadership is incomplete without listening. Leaders have to listen to people to know the various aspects and dimensions of problems. It helps them choose the best and most appropriate decision as per the situation. It helps to minimize failures and enhance the success rate in decisionmaking. It makes people happy as they feel that they have been consulted, listened to, valued and respected. It promotes team spirit and fraternity at the workplace, thus bridging the gap between superiors and subordinates. Axley (1986) says that leadership is the process of influencing people towards the accomplishment of goals. Hence, listening paves the way for the successful accomplishment of goals for leaders.

Listening Tips for Leaders

The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.

Sydney J. Harris

Listening is the skill least mastered by human beings. S. Cohen writes in The Effective Public Manager: Achieving Success in Government (1988), ‘Listening is an essential and undervalued skill.’ People take listening for granted. Atwater (1992) puts the typical speaking rate at about 120 to 180 words per minute. We can generally listen with good comprehension at 500 to 800 words per minute. The gap between the speaking rate and the listening rate is known as ‘word lag’ or ‘time lag’. Bridging this gap is indeed a highly challenging task! Newkirk and Linden (1982) came out with several active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing, reflection, neutral technique, clarifying and summarization, which help leaders to become great listeners. Hence, we shall discuss these techniques that help to overcome the ‘word lag’ and become a good listener.

  • Pay attention to the content and not to other aspects while listening. Also look for cues that are not said. Peter F. Drucker rightly said, ‘The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.’ In addition, Peter Senge says,


    You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is (http://www.scribd.com/doc/30253220/Listening-Habit).


  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Avoid the inner noise that prevents effective listening. Inner noise is all about inner dialogue, which takes place within all human beings during their waking hours. When someone speaks, the inner noise prevents receivers from listening, thus making them jump to conclusions. It is rightly said that we assume communication. That means we assume within our minds that we have communicated with others, as most of the time communication takes place within the mind, leading to conflicts at the workplace. At times big egos prevent us from listening; as Robert Schuller once remarked, ‘Big egos have little ears.’
  • Summarize what is said by the speaker as it prevents you from deviating from the topic. In addition, it provides an exercise for your mind and enriches knowledge.
  • Emphasize value addition. Whenever the speaker delivers a message, try to add your own comments by relating the reel content with your real life experiences. It improves your listening skills and enhances retention of the information for a longer time.
  • Paraphrase the message. Paraphrasing is all about converting the sender’s message into the language of the receiver. It helps you to stay within the topic and results in attentive listening.
  • If possible, take notes, as it keeps you within the topic and encourages the speaker. In addition, notetaking is an indication of your perseverance and you can also follow up, as it is rightly said that a short pencil is better than a long memory. Suspend your judgement. People often rush to conclusions without listening to others properly. It prevents them from learning and absorbing new things.
  • Above all, have respect for the speaker. Only when you respect the speaker will you be able to listen well and learn well. The more you learn, the better a leader you will be.

Take Your Call

Woodrow Wilson rightly noted, ‘The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.’ Making decisions is not an easy task. It involves the collection of information, analysing from multiple perspectives keeping in mind the pros and cons, and finally, taking a call. There is no guarantee that all decisions will be accurate and successful, as there is no certainty in outcomes. However, if leaders are empathetic, selective and attentive listeners, they will be able to weigh both the merits and demerits, and taking into consideration their head and heart, make the final decision. Listening to all ensures more information from multiple perspectives, leading to qualitative decision-making with greater probability for success. That is the reason why most leaders talk less and listen more, so they can process the information mentally to come up with viable outcomes.

Good leaders learn from others through keen listening without any false ego. Who knows, a common man might provide better inputs than the experts. Therefore, good leaders do not ignore small people. In fact, they know that great ideas can only come from the cadre on the lower rungs. As Sam Walton said, ‘The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say …. Our best ideas come from clerks and stockboys.’

It is true that everyone appreciates the opportunity to express themselves. Hence, the leaders must realize the needs of their people and strike the right chord by listening attentively to connect with them and touch them. You cannot clap with one hand; similarly, for effective communication, both the sender and the listener must coordinate effectively. Only then can the right decision be made. To sum up, listen to all and take your call.