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.

What Geese Know about Leadership

Nothing signals Autumn in New England like the migration of geese south for the winter. The familiar sight of geese (usually of the Canadian variety) in a V formation and the sound of honking is indicative of the season. I believe that this migration may have something to teach us about leadership.

When flying in this V formation, it appears that one goose is the leader, first in the formation. All the other geese flank this apparent “leader goose” on both sides. Why do geese fly like this? From a scientific perspective this leader helps to cut through the air, making the whole gaggle more aerodynamic. Therefore, all the other geese expend less energy while flying.

So at first it appears that geese have it all figured out, the strongest goose will the lead the gaggle. And surely this strong goose was born to be the leader through his strength and size; undoubtedly he (or she) received no training in such a leadership position. Thus one could conclude that the leader goose is born, and not made. If this is true then the geese have answered our question about the origin of leadership skill. However, there is more to this leadership story. It turns out that the leader goose is not always the same.

When the leader goose becomes tired, it falls to the back of the V formation, where it can expend less energy. Another goose then flies up take its place, having more energy saved from being elsewhere in the V formation. So, it turns out that the leadership role in this flying gaggle is shared among several, if not all, of the geese. This begs the question, are all geese born to be leaders or do all geese learn to be leaders?

To frame this in a theoretical sense, one might fit these geese into the three premises of leadership outline by Selznick in Leadership in Administration, 1957. The first “Leadership is a kind of work done to meet the needs of a social situation” is descriptive of what these geese are trying to accomplish in their southward migration. (Leadership 1957) Second, he points to “Leadership is not equivalent to office-holding, high prestige, or authority or decision-making”. (Leadership 1957) Perhaps there is no office that any goose could hold, but the leader of the flying formation isn’t any of this tangible things and the position is shared among other members of the gaggle. And third, “Leadership is dispensable” as for each goose it is, no one goose is the leader every time and perhaps may not be the leader upon landing. (Leadership 1957)

This example of leadership is one of nature and of utility; flying in a formation is necessity as is having several geese share the burden of this physical exertion. But does this avian example translate to humans? Undoubtedly there are several differences between our feathered friends and ourselves, but it did make me think that perhaps this a leadership quality in all of us that if it is necessary, we can all step into a leadership position. Geese are born with the capacity to fly and seemingly, with the capacity to take the lead. Are humans hindered by our ability to think and communicate in a more complicated way? Is all it takes for us to be leaders for us to just do it? - I doubt that any goose thinks much about taking his or her turn.
So I ask you this- do geese know if leaders are born or made?

Photo © NC Wildlife Resources Commission