Leaders are Listeners

Winston Churchill is one of the greatest leaders of the twenty-first century. Churchill was known for grueling workdays, capricious moods, and an uncanny ability to master the many details and puzzles of modern warfare. As the Prime Minister during World War II, he was not only in charge of the country’s day-to-day affairs — he was the supreme commander of the British army and intimately involved at the top-level of all Allied war planning. How did he do it? Among many answers, Churchill’s ability to listen well and to the right people made him an effective leader.

Churchill’s ability to listen was controlled by his routines. He worked every day from 7 am to lunch time in his bed. His staff brought him correspondence for the day, often in multiple boxes. Most of the time, he read, digested, and responded (using a system of codes and shorthand) to every letter. In the evenings, he often hosted dinners with other ministers, generals, etc. where he would have one-on-one conversations with them. Of course, these conversations turned toward Churchill’s favorite stories, musings, and creative innovation for the day. Frankly, he dominated the conversations. Yet, meeting after meeting Churchill sought, received, and responded to key information that he needed to know. Churchill made time to listen to everyone and made special time to listen to the most important people.

Hopefully, someone like Churchill makes you want to grow as an effective leader. Here are a few ways you can become a better listener.

Remember That Listeners are Wise

The Bible regularly commends listening. Those who are wise begin by listening to God: “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live” (Deut 4:1). Without listening to God, one loses perspective and only gains an inability to listen effectively to anything else. In other words, if our heart is not set on the Lord’s purposes, then every piece of data we receive will be distorted. The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9).

Yet, God has made the heart that fears him (Prov 3:10) able to grow and gain wisdom: “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” James 1:19-21 contrasts the person who listens and hears with an angry and wicked person: “19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

If you do one thing today, make more time to listen to God, hear God, and to respond to His Word.

Listeners Lean In

Great listeners tune in their conversation. The best listeners know how to make the other person feel valued, important, and connected. Here are a few reminders that I imagine your mother taught you over and over. You may know these, but every time you have a conversation, choose to work on one of these elements.

  • Look the other person in the eyes.
  • Lean toward them (while giving them some personal space).
  • Attempt to ignore or delay distractions—especially your cell phone.
  • Express empathy and matching emotion—smile, sigh, laugh, cry or whatever they are doing. Most of the time, a warm smile is appropriate.
Listeners Ask Great Questions 

You should have a list of questions ready to go at any moment. In fact, they should be in multiple categories. Once you get past the get to know you questions, you have to be creative. In fact, you have to listen well to the initial questions so that you know how to follow up. Often, the questions you need to ask are not dinner table conversations. Human interactions happen in the context of discipleship, counseling, parenting, work, ministry, purchases, and much more. I could provide you a list of helpful questions here, but if you listen well, and think about what you are hearing, the correct questions will pop in your head.

Listeners Write As They Listen

Trey Brunson is an astonishing example of this. He is a tremendous leader and a great friend. In fact, he’s the man who had the idea for this series. His posts are always superb because they are filled with quotes, stories, and anecdotes. Trey has dozens of notebooks full of meeting agendas, creative ideas, prayer requests, contacts, travel ideas, helpful quotes, etc. Every time I have ever sat down with Trey, he brings a notebook and notes something down. Trey is a great leader and a greater friend because he listens well and makes sure that he remembers the substance of our conversations. When you write a conversation down, your mind is forced to summarize it. There is no greater aid to memory and effective critical thinking than writing and summarizing.

Listeners Focus

Focus is one of those secret ingredients to life. Most of the food we eat requires a little salt so that we can taste it fully. In the same way, all of life requires a little focus so that we can squeeze out of it what we should. You need to set aside time to process what you have heard. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that there are times in a conversation when I will put my hands behind my head, stare out the window, and stare. I’m not trying to be rude. I’m trying to process so that I can respond appropriately. Frankly, I don’t process well in the moment. I’ve found that writing down a summary of the conversation then returning at a later time to read it allows me time to process then respond fully and appropriately. You may focus and process differently. Remember, Churchill was a phenomenal leader because he sat aside multiple hours a day to listen and respond to the hundreds of people reporting directly to him.

Listeners Get Dirty

One of my favorite shows used to be Undercover Boss. I used to cringe through every episode as employees would make utter fools of themselves. Yet, often the bosses found true areas of weakness, inventive solutions to problems, and gained a better working knowledge of their business. Whoever you are, you lead something and you are responsible for something. Every one of us rely on people, systems, and routines. We can come to trust them so deeply that we stop listening and paying attention. Go work the line with your employees, get out of the office, inquire about your kids’ day more thoroughly, spend a day at home taking care of the kids, etc. In other words, do what you don’t ordinarily do and get involved in what others around you ordinarily do so that you can listen and understand better.

Listeners Listen to the Right People

You must know who your wise counselors are — and you must listen to them regularly. You need to schedule formal meetings with anyone who reports to you or for whom you are responsible. For spouses, this is a date night. For fathers, this is a Saturday morning breakfast. For ministers, this is visits with your people. For teachers, this is one-on-one conversations with your students. Who do you need to listen to? What regular appointments do you need to make?

We hope you are enjoying these posts! The simple process of writing them is making me think harder about leadership and work harder to grow as an effective leader. I plan to improve my listening skills tomorrow.