Sunday, September 20, 2009

Leaders Need to be Listeners

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.


  1. We have talked a lot in class about leadership being an interaction or relationship - several of the theorists, such as Burns, we have studying focus on this. As most of us probably know from real life situations, it's almost impossible to be in a relationship, personal or professional, if one party isn't listening at all.
    More importantly, I think, when a leader blatantly does not listen, red flags for danger should be raised. There's a good chance the leader is viewing issues and solutions with blinders on to any view other than his/her own. Often the refusal to hear opposing or outside ideas means that the leader has already decided on a course of action that s/he has not considered alternatives to. As we discussed in the class session on groupthink, this can be a true disaster.

  2. In my personal view, I definitely agree with leadership in terms of the relationship between the leader and their followers. I also agree with your points of how important listening is to this relationship.

    I got thinking though about your quote that "A leader who can only communicate in one direction can hardly be called an effective leader." I thought about situations such as the military where communication seems to be more one sided then a two way street. Or in the case of Hitler, who was a dictator when it came to his leadership style, however was very effective at what he did. It all comes back to what we have discussed in class, what is the definition of a leader? And then on the other side, what makes you an effective leader? It was just something that I thought was interesting to think about and can be very different based on the person you talk to or the situation you are in.

  3. I agree as well. Part of leadership is having a connection with your followers, otherwise, you are not really leading anyone. There is one instance where not listening to your followers may be good.

    According to Harvard Business School professor, Michael Roberto, leaders should be wary of taking "Yes" for an answer, and for obvious reasons too. First, until people have a fairly strong relationship with leaders, they are less likely to express dissent.

    Second, there are also the "false yes". It's the kind of "yes" a person gives, but without a true commitment. It's not a true "yes"; it's more like a "maybe".

    Actually, looking further into Roberto's approach of not listening, he is encouraging leaders to listen for something different. He's encouraging leaders to go beyond face value. That they try to hear what people are really saying, even if they aren't saying it at all.

  4. Wow, all three of these comments make some great points. I think effective communication is essential for leadership as well as followership. It's important for both leaders and followers to listen and connect with eachother.

    But, how do we know and how can we measure if a leader is listening? How do we judge effective communication skills?

    Feedback from followers is obviously one way to gauge communication, but is this always the best and most accurate way?

  5. I remember the first meeting I had with my supervisor on the first day of my first tour after graduation. He made it clear that effective communication was critical and that miscommunication could not be used as an excuse for failure. Communication is a huge part of all relationships, and I also agree that effective communication is essential to leadership.
    I think every organization can gain from teaching effective communication skills to their personnel. I know that several problems I have faced regarding unhappy workers, whether directly or indirectly, was partly due to miscommunication, lack of communication, or both. Sometimes we feel like we are not being listened to by our leaders or supervisors, but in reality it may be that our leader has not been given the clear message from us that they are not succeeding in this area.
    I agree with Robert E. Kelley, "In Praise of Followers," that successful leadership relationships are due to effective followers, not just the leaders (Kelley 1988). An effective follower would be able to honestly, courageously, and respectfully inform the leader that they do not feel as though their opinions, concerns, recommendations (whichever) are being taken into account.
    Communication can make or break any relationship. It is EFFECTIVE communication that will strengthen the leadership relationship. (So, I can't seem to get away from 'ships' no matter where I go.)

    Laura: my experience with feedback is that most people hesitate to be completely honest. It seems like personnel higher up in the hierarchy of the organization are more likely to give honest, valuable feedback. They are less intimidate by the chain of command, as junior members tend to be, and are not worried about the repercussions of their feedback. Something my Exec and I stressed to our personnel at my last tour was that feedback was not simply a list of complaints. In order for complaints to be useful, they must come with suggestions for solutions (which we equated to real feedback). That way, the leader can use the feedback (perhaps not verbatim) to help make positive changes that actually take the followers' views into account. However, this is just one small aspect of your question. Thanks!

  6. I was thinking the same thing as Laura in that it is difficult to judge how well someone is listening. I think many times when people are in public office; it is easier for people to criticize through the newspaper or other public ways than to actually address that person directly. I would like to hear Councilwoman Murray’s side of the story and know if she really doesn’t listen well or if she is just overworked and has had to prioritize.
    Instead of a listening issue or a lack of connection to her constituency, she may just not have delegated the tasks correctly to get a job done. No matter what the case is, it shows how difficult it is to be a leader and how the leader is responsible no matter what happens.

  7. This is a rather interesting discussion. I'm inclined to agree with Haley/ Laura- there are always two sides to every story. In general, with almost any issue or problem, I'm usually inclined to figure out the "why?" more than anything else.

    At a macro level, I think that important communication skills are necessary for leadership, but of course it depends on the situation as well as the definition of good leadership. I mean I believe in my heart of hearts that Obama is trying to represent "me", but wouldn't be all that surprised if he refused to take my personal phone call.

    WHO isn't Councilwoman Murray listening to then becomes my question as well.

  8. Like the Hackman and Johnson article expresses, I believe that communication is a vital part of leadership. And like Alanna stated, EFFECTIVE communication. While I think that it is beneficial to hear the side of Councilwoman Murray, if the "followers", so to speak, feel that they are not being heard, especially in an elected public office, there is clearly a gap in the Councilwoman's leadership perception of her role as an official. If perhaps Councilwoman is in fact listening, she is not communicating well to her constituents. Whether it's a lack of communication or listening, there is still a gap in the relationship.

    Like Linda suggested, part of being a leader is having a connection with your followers. In McGregor's "Leadership and Motivation," he speaks to leadership being a 'relationship.' Personally, this really resonated with me. I think that for a leader in a position where followers are EXPECTED, and encouraged even moreso, to have their voices heard, to have the support of followers in the future is critical of a public office official. A 'relationship,' or at least not a mutual one, is not enstated in this particular situation.

    This also made me first immediately think of the Hackman and Johnson article as well. The quote stating "If (Leaders) want to foster cooperation, they downplay power and status cues and emphasize listening." Councilwoman Mary may want to evaluate how this plays into her leadership role.

    However, this situation is interesting and unique. The leader in this instance, Councilwoman Mary, is not trying to motivate followers' attitudes and behaviors to complete their "job" (other than civil duties perhaps). On the flip side, she may have made the mistake of not ultimately realizing that her future office lies in the hands of her followers (not her superiors, as in the normal corporate structure hierarchy). And these followers struggling to build a communicative relationship with her. It will be interesting to see the outcome of C.M.'s future in politics.


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