Are the Best Leaders Listeners or Talkers?Does your team or organization need to improve communications? Would you like to get more e-mails every day?

I’ll often ask those two questions in workshops when we’re discussing communications. Most hands go up when asked who would like to improve communications. Often no one raises a hand when asked who would like to increase the number of e-mails they get every day. Yet what do most managers do when they hear people want more communication: send out more e-mails, load up more PowerPoint slides, and set up more meetings.

Recently I was coaching Rachel, an executive struggling with team issues. She’d been told she needed to improve her listening. Often she’d interrupt to finish a team member’s sentence or cut them off with an answer before he or she completed a thought. This was a major contribution to declining ownership for the team’s growing customer service problems.

Rachel’s preference was to tell rather than ask. She felt leadership was about directing and coordinating the team’s work. She came across as “if I want any of your ideas, I’ll give them to you.” So her team sat back and waited for her to take charge.

In memoirs reflecting on his long career studying, teaching, and writing about leadership (he wrote 27 books), Warren Bennis called listening “one of the most important and most undervalued leadership skills.” He counselled, “Listening is an art, a demanding one that requires you to damp down your own ego and make yourself fully available to someone else.”

Do you prefer listening over talking? Recently Zenger Folkman compared self-assessment of leaders with a strong preference for talking to other leaders who preferred listening. ZF then compared 360 ratings of leadership effectiveness of the talker and listener groups. They found, “the data is extremely compelling, showing that a preference for listening (and listening before talking) is directly tied to a leader’s effectiveness.”

In his Forbes article, Listening and Speaking: The Leader’s Paradox, Jack Zenger adds further research (and how-to tips) on seven ways to become a more effective listener:

1.     When you have something important you want to say, wait for the optimum time

2.     Ask good questions

3.     Be a trampoline, not a sponge

4.     Ask for feedback from others

5.     Be curious

6.     Be aware of what your face is saying

7.     Trust that listening intently, prior to fully stating your position, will get you more than talking.


This folk wisdom sums up this vital leadership skill:

A wise old owl sat in an oak,

The more he heard the less he spoke;

The less he spoke the more he heard.

Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?