Great leaders are great listeners

If you were asked to describe the characteristics of a great leader, you’d probably include things like visionary or strategic thinking, the ability to inspire and motivate others, passion and drive to achieve.

Few, however, would think to add the one trait that truly sets great leaders apart: their ability to listen.

Leaders of high-performing teams know that hiring top talent is not enough. They want to know what their employees have to say. The benefits are twofold. First, if you have invested in recruiting high-caliber employees, you stand to gain from their knowledge, experience and creativity. Second, high-quality team members want to contribute. That’s why they signed on in the first place. Employees who feel like they are sharing in a common goal will bring their best to the table.

It’s not rocket science. Just take a minute to think about how you feel when you know that someone you are talking to is really listening to you? You feel terrific, right? The simple act of listening to employees across your organization will give you a ground-up view of everything that is happening in your organization. You will obtain valuable information about how they think and feel about key issues.

Chances are, you will find out that your employees have been thinking a lot about your company or organization, and they may even have a few ideas about how to improve what you do.

When I first became the president and CEO of a major medical center a few decades ago, I had to make numerous changes in an organizational culture that was highly resistant to change. The staff had become comfortable with the status quo, even though the center’s future was at risk due to poor financial performance and a negative customer-service reputation.

At one point, my executive assistant took me aside to say, “Dennis, I know who you are and that you have a heart of gold, but people working here are scared to death with all of the changes being made.”

I listened, really listened, to my assistant. (See what I did there?) And then I decided to listen some more. I scheduled time with employees at all levels of the organization, called “dialogue with the president” meetings. At each session, I shared my management philosophy, making it clear that employee satisfaction and patient satisfaction go hand in hand. I asked them to rate their satisfaction as employees, on a scale of 1 to 10. Were they brutally honest? Oh yes.

Was it the beginning of change for the better? You bet. I promised them that we would work very hard -- together -- to implement many of their suggestions to increase employee satisfaction.

In just two years, we achieved an award from the country’s top medical center marketing and customer-service company because we had placed in the top 1% nationally for patient satisfaction.

Those who listen to their employees are in a much better position to lead their organizations to greater levels of success. By listening to people’s concerns and ideas, you can dramatically improve and remove obstacles to greater levels of business performance. Asking employees questions and listening to what they say makes them feel you care. And if they feel you care, they will be more productive. Their contributions to organizational success will grow.

Listening is a leadership responsibility that does not appear in the job description. It isn’t hard, either, but it does require commitment. Here are a few suggestions for using your listening skills in the workplace:

  • Make sure your employees feel they are valuable assets who bring unique capabilities and aptitudes to their job functions.
  • Engage your employees and encourage them to share their opinions on all aspects of the workplace.
  • Many leaders avoid emotional interactions, but the best leaders know how to make themselves approachable and show empathy when their employees are in need of attention.
  • Don’t judge or make harsh criticism when others show different ways of approaching or solving problems.
  • Make eye contact. Take note of what is being said and of how it is being said.
  • Compassionate leaders don’t interrupt the flow of conversation. They earn respect from their colleagues by being a patient listener.

By becoming a great listener, you will be well on your way to becoming an effective leader who knows how to bring out the best in others. Organizations reach their highest levels of success when every member feels that their voice, concerns, and actions matter.


Dennis C. Miller is the managing director of The Nonprofit Search Group and a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach with more than 35 years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country. Dennis is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator and successful author. His new book is “A Guide to Recruiting Your Next CEO: The Executive Search Handbook for Nonprofit Boards."

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