Tony Hayward, previously BP CEO, was quoted in the Financial Times as saying he has a “leadership style that really listens”. He isn’t alone. In fact, listening has become the biggest and most fashionable of all modern leadership fads.
Every new leader promises that this is what he is all about. Gordon Brown, previous UK Prime Minister, arrived at Number 10 in June and talked about how much he was listening. Three times in his acceptance speech he commended himself for how much of it he was doing.
“I have listened to and I have heard the British people,” he said, bafflingly implying that plain old listening isn’t as good as listening plus hearing. There is nothing wrong with listening per se. In fact, some listening is vital – but it has to be the right sort.
The very word listening encourages people to say some remarkably silly things. Here is what Peter Senge, the management thinker, has to say on the topic. “Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed.”
This sounds a little over-complicated. So do all the varieties of listening that managers get trained in: active listening, empathetic listening and something called deep heart listening. In the US there is an International Listening Leadership Institution which teaches you a 10-step programme on how to be a listening leader.
This, surely, is six steps too many. Here, for nothing, is my four-step guide to listening for leaders.
1. Take anything out of your ears (i.e. headphones)
2. Dispel as many worrying thoughts from your mind as you can.
3. Try to concentrate on what the other person is saying.
4. Look at the person. This is optional, though advisable as it makes the other person feel better.
Finally, when listening to a staff member who is distressed, then it might be good to look sympathetic and to put one’s BlackBerry or iPhone down for a second.
It’s that easy.