When I opened up to the local news section of The Tennessean today, this headline caught my eye: “Calling Councilwoman Murray: Please do your job.” This was quite the serious accusation. Here, a public leader was being criticized for not doing what she was elected by her followers to do. I admit that I don’t usually follow the local news since I have yet to consider myself a permanent Nashville resident, so I didn’t have a clue what Councilwoman Murray might have been up to lately. After reading this column, I found myself sharing the author’s frustration. Councilwoman Murray does not respond to any of her phone calls, and her constituents are petitioning for her removal. This leader is ignoring one of the most important skills that one must possess: the skill of listening.
We all took listening tests in elementary school. We listen to our professors and classmates for three hours at a time. We know how to do it. It’s an ability we all have, but some use it far better than others.
Reading this column about a public leader that isn’t listening to her followers got me thinking about how listening plays a vital role in all forms of leadership, even within a company or organization. Listening is one whole side of communication. What good could come from a leader who has a charismatic personality that can enrapture his employees but who doesn’t listen to what they have to say in return? A manager could tell his workers what to do all day long, but what if he ignores their suggestions about ways to make the product better or to present an idea in a more creative way? A leader who can only communicate in one direction can hardly be called an effective leader. In addition to having frustrated employees, the leader will be missing out on a vast source of knowledge and new ideas from his employees. The leader might have the full power of decision-making, but what good is that power without input from others?
In “Leadership Communication Skills,” Hackman and Johnson describe how two-way communication plays a large role in leadership. Not only do they explicitly mention listening as a leadership skill, they explain that taking inputs from others, taking cues from the environment, and soliciting feedback from others makes leaders successful (429). Leaders listen to their followers, and then use these inputs to form their agenda.
Listening will also improve the relationship between leaders and followers, which will help the leader attain more referent power. According to Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy, referent power is what gives the leader the ability to influence those with whom he or she has built a strong relationship. These interpersonal connections can be strengthened through communication, and this means the leader must take time to listen to the followers. With referent power, the leader will then have more loyal followers who share in the leader’s vision (341).
What better way for a public leader like Councilwoman Murray to be a successful leader than to improve her relationship with her constituents. If she listened to them, she would hear their input and recognize what they needed from her as a leader. Had she strengthened her interpersonal connections with them, she would be able to better influence the community with her goals, and she might find more agreeable followers who are willing to accept her plans.