Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, has been universally regarded as a remarkable leader. He had a powerful yet humble presence and keen ability to see the big picture. He demonstrated deep compassion and kindness for others and consistently displayed high levels of forgiveness.
One day he was asked this very simple question:
How did you learn to become such a great leader?
In response to this question, Mr. Mandela shared that he was the son of a tribal chief and that his father would always bring him to his tribal council meetings. As a child, Mr. Mandela would sit and closely observe these meetings and in looking back on these memories, he clearly remembered two things.
The first thing was that these meetings were always held with the group sitting in a circle. There was no head of the table. Everyone faced each other.
The second thing he clearly remembered was that his father was always the last to speak. He placed great value on ensuring he heard everyone else’s point of view, opinions, ideas, and thoughts before speaking himself.
Well-known author and inspiration speaker, Simon Sinek, once shared this Mandela story in a commencement speech he gave to illustrate several key points about the power of listening.
Sinek believes that one of the biggest problems with leadership is that in boardrooms across the world, many leaders will come in and sit at the head of the table. They will present problems or issues then go on to share what they think first and then ask everyone else in the room what their opinion is.
According to Sinek, it is too late. You’ve lost your people and already stated what you think is right. He encourages leaders to be much more like Mandela and his father. The greatest skill a leader can possess is to 'hold their opinions to themselves' until everyone has spoken. This does two things.
Mandela learned that the key to great listening is to put your ego aside and empower others around you to share their insight, ideas, solutions, and thoughts. Exceptional leaders talk less, listen more and ask better questions.
According to research done by the Harvard Business Review, leaders have more lines of communication than anybody else in the organization. However, the information that flows to them can be suspect and compromised. Warning signs are tamped down, key facts omitted and data sets given a positive spin. All of this translates and morphs itself into a dangerous information bubble.
To avoid this trap, great listening is a skill that must be worked on. By asking the right questions and truly listening, great leaders are better informed and equipped with the insight they need to make informed choices.
When it is their time to speak, they have not only empowered those around them, but also let these people know that their opinions and thoughts matter.
An acronym I once came across in a leadership article I read was WAIT:
A great self-check tool for any leader to remind themselves about the importance of practicing deep listening skills, rather than filling the air unnecessarily with their thoughts and opinions.
In closing, Mandela once said:
“I learned to have the patience to listen when people put forward their views, even if I think those views are wrong. You can’t reach a just decision in a dispute unless you listen to all sides.”
As you reflect on your own leadership style, to what extent do you honestly feel you take the time to listen first before speaking?
In what ways have you grown as a listener during your time in leadership?
To what extent do you ask clarifying questions and probe for deeper understanding before sharing what you think or believe?
Would the WAIT acronym better serve you as a leader in order to remind you to self-check when speaking?
As always, thanks for reading. Hope this blog post resonates with you and inspires you to be even a better listener.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.