One of the greatest challenges for leaders is that we often find ourselves in situations where not knowing is perceived as a sign of weakness. You're in a position where people look to you for guidance and vision. Which is why, in my experience coaching founders and CEOs, one of the hardest things to do is to get them to stop, be quiet, and listen.
But that's just the first step; listening alone isn't enough. To be a great leader, who inspires trust in others, you need to demonstrate that you not only hear them but that you "get them."
Most people think leadership is about being the smartest person in the room, but what I've learned from my own experience, and from observing hundreds of senior-level executives, is that there is incredible power in being able to accept that you are not that person--at least not yet. It's the hardest thing for most of us to do, especially if we're the ones others look to for direction and vision.
The essence of leadership is getting people to follow your lead and vision who inherently know more about the nuts and bolts of whatever it is you're leading better than you ever will. Think of it this way: You follow a manager because you have to but you follow a leader because you want to.
During the many decades I trained business consultants to work with large companies on complex problems, the single most challenging aspect of their training was to get them to keep their mouths shut long enough to actually listen to a client--even if they thought they knew the answer.
Highly paid people who are brought in to solve sophisticated problems want to put their smartness on display as quickly as possible. It's how they demonstrate value. However, what I often found was that the sort of listening they were doing was more like a polite pause before saying what they were going to say anyway--after all, what they had to say was so important that nothing could alter the trajectory of their opinion.
Many leaders want to do the same, and it undermines their leadership. A leader is only a leader because people choose to follow him or her. And getting people to follow you is about having them believe that you understand them, not that you're smarter than them.
Humans are extraordinary complex creatures. We long for understanding, and we instantly sniff out when someone is trying to understand or just being patronizing. Your job as a leader is to really hear what people are saying, not what you want to hear or what you think you heard.
That said, here are four things you can do to help create that empathetic bond of understanding and trust.
1. Practice empathy over ego.
We all want to be respected for what we know; that's ego. Being respected for how well you understand someone is empathy. We often think of empathy as something a person naturally has. That may be true to some degree, but there are ways we can all improve our empathy.
For example, one of the best ways I've found is called active listening. What that means is hearing what a person is saying and then repeating its essence back to them. This may sound patronizing at first, but the problem is that we all have a tendency to hear what we want to hear. Repeating back to someone what you think they said will make sure you understand them as well as assure them that you were in fact listening.
2. Deal with the embarrassment of being ignorant.
One of my favorite ways to disarm someone who is already convinced that they know more than I do about a given topic is to agree with them. I call this the Columbo method, named after Peter Falk's character in the 1970s detective show. Columbo was utterly disarming and borderline idiotic in his approach to getting information from people. By removing the threat, he was able to learn much more than he could have otherwise.
Doing the same will help you get beneath the assumptions and the outer layers of a problem. While Columbo used this superpower to catch the bad guys, it's just as effective in developing positive empathy with people.
3. Be patient with yourself.
This is a tough one. If you are going to learn empathy, then you have to learn to sit silently while others ask for advice and guide them to the answers rather than feel the responsibility to provide them. It takes time to get beneath the superficial layers of any problem to understand actual causes and lily solutions. Always give yourself the time to digest and process what you've learned.
4. Tell people what they already know in ways they've never thought of before.
The ultimate test of empathy is understanding a situation and people well enough to take an obvious but otherwise intractable situation and present it to people in a novel way. This demonstrates that you understand them and their situation well enough to be able to bring a new perspective to it. In the vast majority of cases, that ability alone is the greatest value of leadership.
Lastly, embrace the journey. If you look at leadership as a process of relentless learning, find ways to make your brain hurt, and share from a place of understanding rather than one of authority and ego, you're much more likely to have the ultimate proof of great leadership--followers.