Friday, August 18, 2020

Do You Hear Me?

Rushed, overworked, and poorly focused leaders rarely listen to anyone very well; their minds are too distracted. Others—usually the more arrogant and self-obsessed—make the silly mistake of trying to save time and effort by mentally categorizing people: an A-list (always worth hearing), a B-list (who are sometimes given some attention), and then everyone else (who are automatically ignored or excluded). Such leaders, whatever their motivation, greatly increase their risk by shutting their ears (and their minds) to vital sources of information. Failure to listen quickly leads to failure in everything else.

A typical top executive, for example, might choose to hear powerful colleagues nearly all the time, together with an inner clique of close friends and advisers. Others the executive must at least appear to listen to (usually people on the B-list) are given polite expressions of attention, while the executive’s mind is mostly elsewhere. As for everyone else, the executive either manages to avoid them altogether—“minders” and personal assistants are a great help in this—or chooses to dismiss whatever they say before they open their mouths.

Failing to listen widely and with an open mind is a basic error of leadership. Sometimes it is caused by simple egotism (I am too important to have to listen to anyone less important than I am). More often it is a by-product of an over-stretched schedule, leading to the belief that spending time listening—especially to those whose views are assumed to be not worth hearing—is wasting time urgently needed elsewhere. Yet acting like this is always hazardous, since it closes off vital sources of information about what is going on outside your immediate area of view (which is already highly restricted). Making up your mind instantly about who is worth hearing leaves you easy prey to every glib, smart-souding manipulator. They know how to sound impressive, even if what they have to say is self-serving, biased, or incorrect. Someone capable of bringing you the true picture may be nervous and inarticulate, especially if it is someone junior who knows others may have been keeping you in the dark.

Failed leaders are usually those who allow themselves to become insulated from the real world by a clique that feeds them false information. Why are there so many stories about a good ruler who is lead astray by evil counsellors? Because it’s one of the commonest events in human history. The saddest part is that the leader concerned typically co-operates in his or her downfall by refusing to listen to anyone else. More leaders fail through lacking accurate and timely information than ever come to grief through incompetence. Most of these have fallen into the trap of relying on data from a tiny A-list of chosen people, many of them just as remote from everyday reality, and all of them actively pursuing personal agendas. The data was there, as were those who could have supplied it. What was missing was the leader’s willingness to listen to those who might conceivably have something useful to say.

Successful generals have long known that time spent on reconnaissance is rarely wasted. Never restrict your sources of information in an arbitrary way. Don’t assume some person is always worth listening to and another is not. It is rarely true. Even the most trusted advisor may sometimes bring you data of dubious worth. And never fall into the trap of trying to save time by dismissing ideas or suggestions in advance, purely on the basis of their source.

Wise leaders understand that it is not safe to assume other people will always be expert at expressing themselves. Nor is it up to others to make it through the defenses well-meaning assistants will try to keep in place around any busy manager. It is their job, as leaders, to be experts at listening and getting the information they need; and at seeking it out wherever it may be found. If they don’t have currently enough time to do this, they drop something less useful to make space in their day. Being a poor listener, especially an arrogant and pigheaded one hiding behind a screen of minders, will ruin you faster than just about anything else.

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Timothy said...

Did you model this example off of the Bush administration? If so, you forgot to allow for factors such as Karl Rove, who was on the A-list, but ALSO wove the emperor's clothes, which Bush gladly wore (and the people gladly "saw") until the 2006 election shattered the illusion. As an example, during the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, Karl Rove was in excruciating pain from a series of kidney stones and absent for surgeries. Coincidence? :)

8:56 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Timothy.

No, I didn't have a political model in mind, though it guess it applies there as well as anywhere else.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:50 AM  

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