Bosses unfit to effectively lead people are everywhere. Chances are, you've probably worked for one in the past. But among those "bad boss" stories, there is bound to be one of a true leader who made a positive and lasting difference in your life. 

My example takes me back about fifteen years. I reported to an executive who was the most approachable boss I ever had, despite his positional status. He valued me as a human being, developed my skills, and allowed me the freedom to make important decisions. 

In my observation, one powerful and rare leadership trait that he consistently demonstrated made him fit to be a leader: listening.

The importance of listening as a leader.

Before you assume you're fit to lead, you have to ask yourself, Am I a good listener? Because if you're going to lead, you need to be. 

Not being a good listener can hurt your leadership in several ways:

  • Your employees may be less willing to share information for fear of disapproval.
  • Your leadership decisions may be based on assumptions rather than facts.
  • Your team members may be disconnected from you.
  • Your team members look to you for answers and avoid taking ownership of their work.

On the flip side, recent research out of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published in Harvard Business Review, supports evidence that leaders who listen well "are perceived as people leaders, generate more trust, instill higher job satisfaction, and increase their team's creativity."

One reason leaders don't listen more in the workplace is that they think they'll be perceived as weak or without authority. Another reason is that they are simply under time pressure or distracted by other thoughts.

The first step to becoming a better listener is to eliminate the noise -- from your distracted mind and your physical and digital environment. The researchers recommend these tips:

Give your devices a break.

If you can't give someone your undivided attention, it's better to state that this may not be the best time to talk. When you are physically and emotionally available, put aside your devices and make consistent eye contact to let that person know you are present and listening.

Avoid interrupting.

When a speaker pauses or is processing a thought, the common temptation is for the listener to interrupt before the speaker is done. The researchers offer this helpful instruction to managers: "Go to someone at your work who makes listening very hard on you. Let them know that you are practicing listening and that today you will only listen for __ minutes (where the blank could be 3, 5, or even 10 minutes), and delay responding until the predetermined listening time is up, or even until the following day."

One manager who tried this short listening exercise reported having completed a business transaction in six minutes that otherwise would have taken longer than an hour. The manager said, "The other person shared things with me that I had prevented her from saying for 18 years."

Listen non-judgmentally.

Let's face it, we're all guilty of being distracted by our own thoughts when people are speaking to us. Worse, we may falsely interpret what we hear and judge the speaker through our own filters. The researchers suggest five things to avoid the pitfalls of listening with judgment:

  • Avoid hastily evaluating what you hear and jumping to conclusions.
  • Be aware of the judgemental thoughts in your head and push them aside.
  • Apologize for losing track of the conversation due to your judgments, and ask the person to repeat what they were saying.
  • Do not pretend to listen.
  • Refrain from fixing the problem for the speaker by imposing your solutions.

Ask questions to move the conversation forward.

Like a good coach probing for deeper meaning, your conversations should leave room for the other person's self-discovery, so they can explore their own thoughts and experiences in search of answers to their problems. Keep in mind, a good listener asks questions like, "What do you really want in this situation" and "Is there anything else?" to uncover new information and trigger a brilliant response.

Reflect on what you heard.

After a conversation is over, the researchers recommend reflecting on your listening for those missed moments where you "ignored potential leads or remained silent versus asking questions." Also, think about what you gained from a great listening experience and how you can replicate it in more challenging circumstances.