Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash

In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, I read that “the average person suffers from three delusions: 1) that he/she is a good driver, 2) that he/she has a good sense of humor, and 3) that he/she is a good listener.”

Although that is mostly true, it is meant to make light of a very real leadership dilemma: we aren’t as good at listening as we think, and listening is critical to our success as leaders.

I believe that the best leaders are listeners. Here’s why:

Understanding people precedes leading them

If you want to be more effective connecting with people, make it your goal to understand them.

I love this quote from Herb Cohen – “Effective listening requires more than hearing the words transmitted, it demands that you find meaning and understanding in what is being said. After all, meanings are not in words, but in people.”

A leader’s biggest communication problem is that we do not listen to understand. Most often, we listen to reply.

To be worthy of the responsibility of leadership, a person must have insight into the human heart. That is why leadership finds its source in understanding.

Listening is the best way to learn

It is no accident that we have one mouth and two ears! When we fail to listen, we shut off much of our learning potential.

The leader is the one who should be asking the questions. The reason that many leaders haven’t mastered the art of asking questions is because they can’t control the response. It is a control issue. But the reality is that control is not found in the response given, control is found in the questions you ask.

In my experience, the higher people climb in leadership, the more authority they have, and the less they are forced to listen to others. Listening is not just for advancement, listening is for connection. Connection does more for sustaining leadership than advancing in leadership. So, the further we go, the greater our need to listen!

Listening establishes trust

Effective leaders are always good communicators, but that means a lot more than just being a good talker.

David Burns says it this way: “The biggest mistake you can make in trying to talk convincingly is to put the highest priority on expressing your ideas and feelings. What most people really want is to be listened to, respected, and understood. The moment people see that they are being understood, they become more motivated to understand your point of view.”

When leaders listen to their team and use what they hear to make improvements that benefit the organization, a foundation of trust is built. But, when leaders do the opposite, over time the team will start looking for someone who will listen to them.

Listening Will Improve the Organization

The bottom line is this — when the leader listens, the organization gets better.

Is it possible to be a leader without listening? Yes.

Is it possible to be a good leader without listening? No.

No leader can take an organization to the highest level without being a good listener.

Why? Because you can never get the best out of people if you don’t know who they are, where they want to go, why they care, what they think, and what they have to contribute.

You can only learn these things if you listen.

Now, let’s apply it!

Here are 3 practices I use to become a better listener.

  1. Give yourself a listening audit.
    The next few times you are in meetings, track how many minutes you spend speaking and how many minutes you spend listening. If you’re not spending at least 80 percent of your time listening, you need to improve. Try writing “L” on your notes where you will see it to remind you to listen!
  2. Give your full attention.
    Think about the people who are most important in your life. The next time you have a conversation with them, stop everything you’re doing, give them your undivided attention, and look them in the eye as they speak. If you see surprise, avoidance, or hostility in their expression, it may be because they feel you have not really listened to them in the past.
  3. Seek out people you’ve neglected.
    Effective leaders are active listeners. Active listening includes seeking out the thoughts, opinions and feelings of others. The best way to do this is with good questions. Start with the top leaders on your team. If you haven’t heard from some of your key people recently, seek them out and give them your ear.

I want to challenge you to be intentional about becoming a better listener because I’ve learned this from experience – if you grow as a listener, you will grow as a leader.


  1. Brenda Lawrence on October 19, 2018 at 10:23 pm

    Awesome article Mark Cole!

  2. Ron on October 20, 2018 at 5:18 pm

    My first commanding officer used to emphasize the importance of walking your spaces and getting to know your people. Believe it or not, initially I did not see much value in prioritizing that over all the other stuff I had going on, but over the years walking through my spaces and listening to my personnel has enhanced my situation awareness and understanding 10 fold. It has been integral part of my success and become a best practice of mine.

    As a rising leader I have had to opportunity to observe several senior leaders. The best of them are great listeners and really devote their time to being well informed. Sometimes I amazed how they ask questions that lead them toward a decision. Based on the information they just heard, how did they come up with that question? They seem to always ask the right questions. This is an area where I would like to continue to develop and I know active listening is tightly nested there. Additionally, I know there are times I don’t ask questions because I don’t want to look ignorant. I have to remind myself that its ok not to know everything and just ask the question.
    Bottom line concur 100%.

  3. Mohd Abulqassim Algash on October 22, 2018 at 3:22 am

    Leadership is a built in issue it can not be acquired! If you teach those who does not have this spark, they can climb the ladder to leadership but it will be doughtfull to reach.
    Above comment is based on my experience as HR Manager for a global company.
    I am looking forward to see this topic translated into a lecture.
    M. Abulqassim HR Consultant self employed
    Saudi Arabia

  4. Bill Nash on October 25, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    Good article buddy.
    Listening, not imitation, may be the most sincere form of flattery. – Dr. Joyce Brothers

    • Brenda Nickelson-Cain-Allread on October 30, 2018 at 8:03 pm

      Mark, thank you for the three listening improvements practicums. This is an area I am currently working on, being an active listener. Its a great quality to have. It helps me to know the people I work with and serve better .

      Brenda Nickelson-Cain-Allread

  5. Robert W. Bernard on October 30, 2018 at 2:05 pm

    I love reading through the comments and seeing different points of view and experiences. What value in reading the personal experiences of different individuals. “A leader’s biggest communication problem is that we do not listen to understand. Most often, we listen to reply.” seems to be true about a lot of people.

  6. Daniel Geisler on December 10, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    Great article.

  7. #Listening January 7 | coach4aday on January 7, 2019 at 7:13 am

    […] Cole has a very good article on listening called Listen with Your Leadership on the John Maxwell […]

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