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How Can Leaders Be Better Listeners?

How can leaders of all strips be more effective at hearing their people?

In the Young Leaders Panel, Government Executive editors pose a question about an issue affecting the federal workforce to a group of emergent leaders outside the federal community. The following responses come from St. Louis Coro™ Fellows Program in Public Affairs class of 2013:

Question: Senior leaders in the Army are currently wrapping up listening tours at 29 bases around the country to better understand the effects of sequestration on local communities. Brig. Gen. Theodore Martin, commanding general of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in Southern California, recently told an audience that the purpose of these “Community Listening Sessions” is to implement the sequester “right.” These forums aren’t uncommon--though perhaps less common then they should be--in government. Last September, Reginald Wells, Chief Human Capital Officer of the Social Security Administration, told GovExec about his efforts to institute brownbag lunches with employees so he could hear their concerns firsthand. How can leaders, whether in large forums or small, be better listeners and more effectively hear what their people need and think? 

The following responses come from four fellows that make up the Coro St. Louis 2013 class.

Applying campaign tools to governance and representation

Every election cycle, our hopeful leaders are employing large teams of staff and volunteer canvassers to deliver targeted messages to the doorsteps of voters. The value of canvassing operations is the opportunity to utilize the familiar faces of community members (a) to deliver the message of the candidate directly to the voter, and (b) to mobilize the voter to the polls on Election Day. Shifting the purpose of a canvassing campaign from dissemination of a central message to a solicitation for broader feedback has the potential to incorporate the powerful tool of human interaction into the listening and input mechanisms of our elected officials.

Governance and representation stipulate equal obligations to the adamant supporter as to the fundamentally apathetic. What a listening campaign makes possible is the ability to move away from the old adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” and move towards the empirical collection of what’s important to all of the constituents of a district, a state, a country. Effective listening for our leaders can look like maintaining direct voter contact as a tool to facilitate the active participation and contribution of the public in our own governance and representation.

-- Bram Sable-Smith (Columbia, Missouri)

Reverting Back to Membership

Drawing from the model of labor unions, a leader only becomes a leader when he is elected; until then, he is a member. The beauty and benefits to being a member are that all issues are voiced without filters on who will be listening or the relevance of the topic. Then, when a leader is elected, he is already familiar with the needs and thoughts of his people.  The key to being a better listener as a leader is to find a way to become a member again.

The challenge of sustaining the intimacy with people only appears when a leader begins to act from the summit.  So, the first question to ask is: How can a leader listen to the people on the ground from the top of a mountain? Then, moving beyond rank, the leader needs to begin identifying causes of biased or selective hearing. When does the perspective of rank or responsibilities influence listening? Then, when listening has occurred, the last step is to acknowledge. What actions have the leader shown to people that acknowledges their needs and thoughts?

Effective listeners commit toward shifting the paradigm to being among the people.

-- Amelia Noor (Los Angeles, CA)

I’m Wrong – We’re Right.

My mother always preached, “How can you hear with all the wax in your ear?” Back then, she was being literal. Today, it has a different meaning. The wax isn’t filth impairing my hearing; it’s my ego clouding judgment. It’s the attachment to my own personal ideas. We all do it. It’s human nature.

I’ve been put in leadership positions my entire life. And when I ask myself how a leader can become a better listener, I think it’s acknowledging that you’re not always right. I have found myself, plenty of times, arguing for something that doesn’t make sense. It started off making sense. It started off as genius. Now it’s evolved, and I’m finding myself fighting for something that is irrelevant.

I would ask leaders to put the job, task or project before them—to accept others’ opinions and ideas as equal to their own. I find the most effective leaders are the ones that question themselves. That regardless of who gets the credit, they are focused on creating the best product.

There is something unique about questioning your own beliefs. There’s something special about doing something because it’s right and not because it’s yours.

-- Matt Nichenko (Shreveport, LA)

Power from Listening

The city planner’s greatest fear is that his or her inspired ideas of the moment will “sit on the shelf,” never to be looked at again or acted upon. When planners control neither the policies of their own government nor the whims of the developers and residents for whom the policies are made, it is easy for a good idea to be left behind.  In the absence of power, we have developed a number of techniques for building consensus. 

The least effective of these is the typical community meeting, in which city officials descend into churches and school gymnasiums with a polished proposal, ready for public comment. Frustrated residents rise against ideas that they see as derived from a detached and secretive process.  

Always adapting, we have taken to coming to public meetings earlier, more often, and less “prepared.” The first meeting is to learn about the community as it is; the second, to bring broad ideas for change; the third for specifics; the fourth, to discuss implementation, and so on.  In these meetings, the community does the work of planning their community, and the “planners” themselves are merely the well-trained scribes.  In the end, the plan is nothing more than the record of a conversation.  

-- Phil Fargason (Birmingham, AL)

Read the panel's previous responses:

The Coro™ Fellows Program in Public Affairs is an intensive, nine-month, full-time program that combines exposure to various industries with rigorous, hands-on training. The program uses experiential learning; interviews with private, public and nonprofit decision-makers; and training in critical thinking, communication and project management. These 16 Fellows are participating in the program in St. Louis, where it is operated by FOCUS St. Louis. The program is also offered in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh.