Cultivating the Learning Leader

There is a particular personality type that seems to advance more often than others to leadership positions. They’re not necessarily hard working or smart. What they most often have in common is a love for talking more than listening. I’ve noticed that the employees management most often likes to advance are those who like to project more than they like to take in. They’re aggressive, and as part of that aggression, feel the need to tell more than to listen. Am I right? Or is this just a product of the bad experiences I’ve had in the workplace?

A recent Corner Office column in The New York Times makes me think twice—to some degree. The column’s author, Adam Bryant, offers a Q&A with Lisa Borders, president of the WNBA. Borders shares that when she first started out as a leader, she was dictatorial, very “command and control.” These days, however, her style has evolved to “appreciating that you have two ears and one mouth. You should listen twice as much as you talk.”

Borders says she has learned the value of empowering, rather than controlling, others. “When you empower people, they develop their skills, and then they become your trusted allies to go out into the world and do whatever it is you’re trying to do. It probably took me 20 years to learn that,” she told Bryant. “I got written up so many times for not delegating responsibility and not training others. They’d do it and then I’d do it again. So I would do twice as much work and couldn’t figure out why I was exhausted.”

Is there a way for companies to teach managers and executives this lesson without it taking years? The first step is not advancing employees who are better talkers than listeners. Wait until they develop good listening and learning-from-others skills before promoting them. In evaluating an employee’s suitability for a higher-level position, how much weight is given to evidence that the employee is able to have a give-and-take relationship with those he or she would be managing, rather than a solely top-down relationship? I’ve seen so many managers who lack the ability to be both a partner and collaborator, in addition to a manager, that I bet most companies don’t consider this quality when deciding who to promote.

Having the ability to listen attentively should be an initial interpersonal qualification. The quality that really should put a person over the top as a good candidate for promotion is having a passion for listening. I’ve known people in my life who don’t think of listening as a chore—they actually enjoy it. Funny enough, I’m one of those people myself. I would much rather listen to another person than listen to myself, or worse yet, listen to myself directing another person in a top-down way. That doesn’t mean I don’t think I could handle a management role. Like many others with a tendency to listen more than talk, I just enjoy learning from others, and am curious about what they have to say and who they are. I enjoy sharing my thoughts and ideas, but can easily stay silent while listening to another person. So far, this quality hasn’t resulted in me getting tagged for leadership positions. Is that because the listening and learning-from-others mentality isn’t seen as compatible with leadership?

Can you think of training exercises that could help cultivate employees with leadership potential who are able to—and enjoy—listening to others? In my current job at an optical industry trade publication, I helped one of our bloggers with a piece on this very topic—the importance of being a good listener. My boss—a noticeably poor listener—was irritated with the piece. He said it came across as nagging and scolding. One of the training suggestions I came up with on behalf of this blogger was that readers—mostly optometrists—do an exercise in which they have another person tell them a story they have never heard before. Then, after the other person is finished talking, they should try to recount to the other person the same story in detail. A good listener would have no trouble doing that. A poor listener wouldn’t be able to, or would think he or she could, and then recount the story with many inaccuracies. Could that kind of exercise work in your leadership development programs?

The challenge about advancing employees who are listeners, rather than just talkers, is that many have the ability to listen, but far fewer are willing to make the effort. The hard part is identifying the employees who are motivated to listen because they enjoy learning from others. There is no exercise, or objective test, I can think of that will distinguish a natural listener from a listener who only listens when he or she absolutely has to. How do you think you can best identify those with a passion for learning from others?

Is there a leadership personality your company prefers to cultivate? What are the key qualities of that leadership personality?

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