To Lead, First Listen

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Anyone who is even remotely interested in business literature has, at some point, read an article on how to develop good leadership qualities. Focus, confidence, integrity, passion, and competency often top the list, and for good reason. All great leaders need to possess these characteristics, and they need to consciously cultivate these traits on a continuous basis.

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These qualities are important, but are they enough to lead successfully in a business climate where volatility and change have become the norm? A few decades ago, an organization could rely on a visionary leader to see the big picture and help steer the ship in the right direction to hit both immediate and long-term goals.

Times have changed, though – and drastically. Organizations of all types and sizes face increasingly complex and unpredictable challenges. In today's volatile business climate, businesses experience unprecedented degrees of turnover, competition, disruption, and uncertainty. The leadership qualities that once paved the path to success are now merely the price of admission to play in a high-stakes game with slim margin for error.

For those of us over the age of forty, the classic leadership archetype tends to be a self-assured individual who always has the answers and knows how to communicate them confidently and unambiguously through a sequential top-down chain of command. In this model, a few people at the top of the chain have access to the greatest amount of information – everything from customer feedback to financial data – and they use this input to make all major decisions for the entire organization. This type of leadership used to work well in a world where things changed slowly and business dynamics were fairly predictable from quarter to quarter.

In the midst of disruption, the challenge for most leaders is getting everyone moving in unison when the goal posts and the rules of the game are constantly changing. Team alignment is absolutely essential to achieving anything of real significance, and agility has quickly become the most critical ingredient of success in turbulent times.

Consequently, the need to be "right" is being replaced by the need to be flexible. Flexible leaders can change their plans to maintain productivity during transitions and periods of chaos. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) asserts that rapid organizational change is one of the most significant leadership development challenges facing the businesses of tomorrow. Like Cisco and IMD, the CCL has found that many organizations have mastered the operational and/or structural sides of change while merely skimming the surface in terms of the people side of change.

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The CCL recommends implementing "change leadership" – that is, focusing on the phases of change and the emotions associated with those changes to help people cope and gain desired results from new directions, systems, or initiatives. Change leadership requires leaders and organizations to foster beliefs and mindsets that will develop the practices and behaviors that help people adapt to change.

Leaders must learn to treat uncertainty and ambiguity as the new normal. The most important quality of the successful contemporary leader may be something that is fundamental to all human relationships: the ability to listen.

Let's face it: We are in the midst of a global listening epidemic. Millions of social media posts, tweets, and pictures are shared every minute, yet most of us still don't feel like we are being heard. We've all experienced the deleterious effects of the lack of active listening within the workplace at some point. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the workforce has attended a meeting in which one executive does the talking while other participants hold back their thoughts, feeling utterly powerless to express themselves or do anything about their circumstances.

The lack of listening leads to more than a lack of consensus: When staff members don't feel heard, their commitment, engagement, and productivity levels will drop.

It's time for leaders to start listening more actively to the people who know the most about their business: their employees. Listening provides the crucial foundation for strong leadership and thriving organizations. For decades, many executives have fallen into the trap of believing that sound leadership means talking the loudest. Truly strong leaders, however, realize that listening to others is the key to success.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Waggl blog.

Waggl is the most human way for organizations to crowdsource feedback.