Do You Lead by Listening?

As Flight 1549 plummeted down, they chanted in unison to passengers, “Brace, brace, heads down, stay down,” preventing many injuries during the rough water landing; a testament to the leadership aboard the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, and to the power of repetitive and concrete instruction for provoking action (Sutton, 2010). Examples such as this one are those rare gems which can take an entire tome on leadership, and give it a single, palpable schema with which to walk away from the reading and immediately apply its lessons. Yet is leadership entirely about leading? Is being a follower both the antithetical and only alternative?

Leadership is leading, yes as the term begets, but leading is additionally listening. In a summer article for the Harvard Business Review, Martin (2007) wrote, “Brilliant leaders excel at integrative thinking. They can hold two opposing ideas in their minds at once. Then, rather than settling for choice A or B, they forge an innovative “third way” that contains elements of both but improves on each… Embrace the complexity of conflicting options. And emulate great leaders’ decision-making approach – looking beyond obvious considerations” (p. 73). The funny thing is, though, some leaders may hear this and think they must come up with all of those great options & ideas personally. ‘They put me in charge because they expect me to have all the answers’ you may say. ‘My people can’t possibly think I am weak and in need of their help to decide what to do’. I challenge this thinking to instead reply that your abilities as an individual contributor may have been what brought you praise, possibly even initial consideration for the position you now serve, but it wasn’t why you were selected.

You were selected because you see the opportunities a better run team can collectively contribute to organizational success, more colloquially known as ‘seeing both the forest and the trees’. But where can we turn for a repetitive, concrete example of how to get the best of our people by learning to listen better, rather than relying on our ideas and personal experiences alone? How about a solution dating back to 1956, Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Educators have been using it for decades, and anyone who has frequented grad school has been exposed at least minimally in conversation with fellow scholars. The crux of Bloom’s work gives us categorical direction with which to mine meaningful data from our direct reports, by simply channeling the intentions of our listening activities via the following levels of thinking as described by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001):

Remembering: Retrieving, recognizing, and recalling relevant knowledge from long-term memory.

Understanding: Constructing meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages through interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarizing, inferring, comparing, and explaining.

Applying: Carrying out or using a procedure through executing, or implementing.

Analyzing: Breaking material into constituent parts, determining how the parts relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose through differentiating, organizing, and attributing.

Evaluating: Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing.

Creating: Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing.

So try this yourself with your team, by applying at least two of these levels in your next meeting, see if the conversation changes shape from what you’re used to hearing (or saying).

– Justin

Forehand, M. (2005). Bloom’s taxonomy: Original and revised. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/

Martin, R. (2007). How successful leaders think. Harvard Business Review, 85(6), 60-67.

Sutton, R. I. (2010). Good boss, bad boss: How to be the best – and learn from the worst. New York, NY: Business Plus.

One thought on “Do You Lead by Listening?

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