To Speak Is To Lead. Wait, Isn't Leading About Listening?
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Look, I get it. We live in a namby-pamby time where we have to pander to the idea that everyone has a voice, and all voices are equal, and that if you’re not completely holacratic in your thinking, you’re just a bad human being. Kumbaya and all that crap.
That’s just not leadership
It’s frustrating. I did a search the other day looking for leaders who speak, and all that came back was a heap of blog posts that spoke about the importance of listening over speaking.
‘Speak less, listen more,’ they say.
And I have to say I agree with the core essence of the statement. We do need to listen more than we speak, but these articles are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Listening is important – all great leaders are both learners and teachers – however listening is not enough!
In July 2016 I took over as the president of EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organisation) Johannesburg. It was a large, respected chapter worldwide with many of South Africa’s top entrepreneurs holding membership. It was an opportunity for me to lead leaders.
To lead without authority. I realised going in that I needed a new style. This wasn’t like running a company; this was about listening and giving everyone a voice. I was determined to go into this a better person, a better leader.
I FAILED DISMALLY.
In fact, as I write this at 43 years of age, I still consider my year as president of EO as the biggest failure of my career. So, what did I do wrong?
I sat down.
Going in, I knew that everyone knew that I was a public speaker and I was determined not to be that guy. So, I arrived, I sat down at the table. I raised issues, I listened to resolutions, I put things out to vote. And what did it get us? Mediocrity.
We didn’t break the organisation, but we certainly didn’t change it enough. I’m perhaps being unfair; I actually believe that we achieved a fair amount, just not when measured against our potential.
Related: Why Great Speakers Are Great Leaders
On reflection, I was reminded of that great line ... ‘A CAMEL IS A HORSE DESIGNED BY A COMMITTEE’.
Here’s what I would do differently if I was to do it again.
I’d be the first person in the room every board meeting. I’d stay on my feet and greet people as they entered. Once everyone was in, I’d ask them to sit down; I’d pause and look at them. Then, while standing, I’d remind them of our victory condition, the goals we set out to achieve.
I’d talk about the achievements of the board over the last month. I’d talk about the stumbling blocks we were facing, and I’d talk about my expectations for the next month, and the rest of the meeting.
Then I would sit down. Then I would listen.
And I would keep asking, and listening, for the rest of the month. I’d learn from the board who worked with me. I’d learn what was working, and what wasn’t. Then a month later, at the next board meeting, I’d stand up again!
That’s the job. Listening is just the tool that will help you get the job done.
So, by all means listen to your team. Learn from them. Every monologue should kick off a dialogue – that dialogue is fundamentally important – it just won’t make you a leader.
The world is full of people who listen, it’s just not moved by those who do that alone. We get moved to change by TED speakers, not TED ticket holders. We watch speeches that changed the world, not because we admire the skill of the audience, but because we aspire to the skill of the orator.
To speak is to lead.
This article is an excerpt from Richard Mulholland's book, Boredom Slayer: A Speakers Guide To Presenting Like A Pro, available in all good bookstores.
Related: What Kind Of Leader Are You?