How many leaders are known for their deep capacity to listen? How often do we select our leaders based on their capacity to learn?
Several years ago I began a search for photographs of nationally recognized leaders who were captured listening. The search took me to presidential libraries, national archives, Associated Press, Look magazine. One person kept emerging -- listening to children, listening to groups of workers, listening to people in pain – Robert F. Kennedy. On the fortieth anniversary of his death, the New York Times turned over the Op-Ed page to RFK’s children to share their memories of him. (NY Times 6/6/08) His oldest son, Joseph Kennedy II wrote this about his father.
I remember how my father listened with rare empathy to everyone. He paid a lot of attention, for instance, to Putt, an old man who lived in a rest home at the end of Sea Street in Hyannis. A gas attack during World War I had left Putt unable to hear or speak. He spent most every day riding around Lewis Bay in a little rowboat with a five-horsepower engine.
If Putt spotted us sailing to Egg Island for a picnic, he’d pull alongside, and my father would pass him a sandwich, a bag of chips and a beer. Putt would follow the sailboat until we gently beached, and then he and my father would stand together on the sand, their heads leaning toward one another.
Years later, in the same way, my father sat down with Appalachian coal miners — tough men, covered in soot, sharing their aches and ambitions. In a famous photo of him with his arm resting easily on the shoulder of a miner, he could be talking to Putt.
I once traveled with him to a Navajo reservation and watched in the dim light of a rundown adobe dwelling as he leaned over to hear an old man talk about the struggles of his people. I heard Native Americans share their pain as if they somehow knew, because of a certain sorrow in his heart coupled with an active and tough mind, that my father would do everything to help.
So it happened wherever he went — on the streets of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, in a square in Warsaw or in the well of the Senate. And wherever he could, he acted. After visiting Bed-Stuy, he pressed his campaign donors to direct investments into one of New York City’s poorest and most neglected neighborhoods.
A more recent article in the NY Times discusses the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation which traces it origins to the same visit Joseph Kennedy II mentions.
Senator Kennedy, of course, was born out of state, grew up in privilege and was white, which made him different from most of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s residents in at least three major ways. Still, as Elsie Richardson, a longtime neighborhood activist, recalled: “None of that showed. I know one thing. He was someone who listened. He was always interested in getting information, he picked it up fast, and he would move on the information he received.”
This is the power of listening – the ability to connect, erase differences, build trust and most importantly to have new possibilities emerge.
Acting, making decisions, being tough, or being expert are easily recognized forms of leadership. Not so with listening. There is of course a major dilemma with listening and that is your willingness to be influenced, to change course, to become an advocate for others.
Once during a business crisis, which was creating layoffs I encouraged a senior executive to get out and talk to people. He was very resistant and when I pressed, him he said – “What’s the point? The decisions been made, people are unhappy. There is nothing I can do about it. Besides, it is too painful to listen to them.”
Here is another example how leaders can slowly stop listening. The head of a large engineering division asked me to talk with small groups of his engineers. He had received some disturbing feedback and wanted to know what was going on and what it was like to be a new engineer. I was a bit surprised that he didn’t want to do it himself, since he had come up through the ranks. He explained to me that over the years he had put on suit of armor mostly to defend against criticism and that these kind of face-to-face discussions had a tendency to get messy. He went on to explain that since he become an executive vice president that most of his attention went to the politics of what was going on along side him with peers and those above him. How the engineers felt was a mystery to him.
All leaders should ask themselves a simple question – to whom am I passionate about listening? If it is only your advisors, your boss or your board of directors then it is time to get out of the office and try listening to your customers and your employees. Of course you have to be open to influence.
When we elect our leaders we should ask the question does he or she have a track record of listening and learning? The world is too complex to have leaders who act solely based on their own knowledge and input from their advisors. If we expect our leaders to listen, maybe they will.
We need more leaders like Robert F. Kennedy who walk the streets and listen, are touched and then act. We need these leaders in our churches, our communities, our businesses and in our government.