Listening as leadership

I’ve learned the past couple of years that one of the most effective means of leadership is asking the right questions of people and then simply listening. It’s amazing how often people will identify their own problems and then figure out solutions if someone gets them thinking about their situation. On many occasions I can identify a problem someone is having. Rather than saying, “You need to change such-and-such”, though, I start asking questions and then listening. If the person can identify the problem on his/her own, they tend to take much more ownership of the solution. The conversation often goes something like this:

ME: How are things going?
THEM: Fine, except for this one thing.
ME: What’s that one thing all about?
THEM: It’s about such-and-such.
ME: And why is such-and-such that way?
THEM: Well, I guess because of that one factor.
ME: Okay…and could something be done to change or improve that one factor?
THEM: Well, yeah, probably.
ME: What would it take for you to change it?
THEM: It would probably take this.
ME: And would that fix the problem?
THEM: I guess so. Actually, I might need to do this over here, also.
ME: That sounds good. Are those two things something you could do?
THEM: Yes, I can do them.
ME: Okay, why don’t you do them, then? Next time we talk I’ll see if you’ve done those two things and how it’s working out.

And just like that, the problem is solved without me having to apply top-down pressure as a leader. It doesn’t always work; sometimes a leader has to be more directive, but when people can solve their own problems it empowers them to do more of the same for themselves and others.

Each summer I lead a team of summer interns for two months. I realized over a year ago that I was not getting enough time listening to them, because I was too busy with all the logistics of our program. So I started scheduling a couple of days in the summer to have a one-on-one meeting with each intern to ask them a few questions and then listen and let them speak their minds. I am finding this to be an incredibly effective tool for connecting with the interns, allowing them to know they are heard, and to troubleshoot any problems that might be cropping up. Yesterday I began my first round of meetings with our summer interns, and had good talks with a half dozen of them. Here are the questions I asked:

  • What are your goals for this summer?
  • What gifts or abilities has God given you and how can you use them here this summer?
  • When do you feel the most fulfilled?
  • When do you feel the most frustrated?
  • What is the best way to encourage you?
  • What do you need this summer in order to stay healthy spiritually, emotionally, and physically?
  • What do you think is the best kind of leadership or leader?
  • What do you think is the worst kind of leadership or leader?

Moral of the story: As a leader, remember that you don’t always have to be talking and directing. Often, the very best thing you can do is to listen.