If one recognizes that listening is important–and it’s very important–then one understands the significance of the decision of what one will listen to at any given moment.
To listen–to dedicate one’s full attention to one thing–necessitates that one exclude other things.
How do effective leaders decide?
A real-time example of this challenge can be seen in Mitt Romney’s recent responses to criticisms of his presidential campaign. Romney, an experienced private sector executive, has publicly dismissed various negative appraisals. He urges observers to look past discouraging polling results of recent days, declaring his presidential organization “very effective.”
How Leaders Decide When to Listen
Whether Romney is correct in his view of the election will be borne out soon enough. What is interesting is how it sheds light on how a leader decides when to listen–and when to publicly acknowledge his reaction to–people urging him to change course. These questions are faced by leaders in all settings.
It’s natural to want to overlook the carping of opponents or competitors. What takes greater discipline and applied wisdom is to remain open to serviceable information that might be found amid such disagreeable communications. This can be made easier if one separates one’s sense of oneself as an individual, from one’s symbolic role in a high-profile position.
Skillful politicians, for example, constantly learn from their opposition. In some cases, such as Ronald Reagan, their identification with many of their critics’ concerns is made easier by the fact that they once shared their worldview.
Others, such as Bill Clinton, cultivate highly sensitive listening and empathetic sensibilities. They are constantly listening, learning, and subsequently re-framing discussions to take opposing views into account. Thus Clinton would declare that “the era of big government is over” or that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”
Romney Responds to Restive Supporters
Mitt Romney is, for the moment, hearing much unsolicited chattering from supporters concerned about his performance in the closing weeks of the campaign.
Should he simply shut them out, keep his head down, hold firm to a longstanding strategy? Should he pause to listen to them? If so, how should he filter the information? How does he decide at what point listening can be a costly distraction from a single-minded focus on execution of his strategy? To the extent he concludes that his supporting critics are correct, to what extent should he acknowledge that publicly? How will that relate any such course corrections to his management team?
Does Romney’s experience as an entrepreneur incline him to dismiss such questioning as the unproductive chatter of uninformed or unimaginative naysayers? Does he have other direct experiences that determine his reactions? Does he have a council of advisers to whom he will listen, helping him calibrate his overall information filter? Does he have templates in his mind from his observation or understanding of history, informing his customary reactions?
No Universally Right or Wrong Answers
Whether Romney has made the “right” choices will emerge over time. Even the election results may not entirely answer the question, because there are so many factors in play.
In one set of circumstances one may be exactly right to hear out an objection, acknowledge its value or motivation–and move right past it. Another time one might be on a path that is wrong or could be improved by more effective listening and observation and reflection. The risks of a detour may be less than the risks of going full speed ahead in the wrong direction. Should one rely on one’s own experiences or temperament in making these judgments? Does one risk fighting the last war?
These questions go to the heart of effective leadership. They have always been there. In the 24-7 world of the Internet and 21st century leadership, the opportunities to get it right–or wrong–are more numerous and intensified.
How Do You Decide?
How do you decide when and how to listen to others’ criticisms or suggestions, when to do so can distract you from a laser focus on the task at hand? When have you seen others handle such challenges well? When have you seen others get it wrong? What is the basis for your evaluation?
When Is Not Listening the Right Decision?