What Is the Most Important Leadership Skill?

The single most important skill in leadership is also one of the hardest to practice. This is especially true when you’re weighed down with deadlines and have employees looking to you for guidance.

It’s easier to keep your head down and focus on driving results, than to stop what you’re doing and listen. It’s neither intuitive, nor logical in most cases, to replace *doing* with *listening*. This is especially true when the stakes are high.  

While the idea of becoming a masterful listener is attractive to many leaders, the practical application of actually listening can be frustrating. It can feel like a luxury to spend that much time hearing what another person has to say, and can even feel like a total waste of time.

A Leadership Skills Training: Listening

During a presentation I delivered a few years back in Baltimore, Maryland, I took the group through a listening exercise. In the room were leaders from various industries; healthcare being the most represented.

Here’s how the exercise went…

I asked everyone in the room to recall a story that they love to share. Their story could be about anything–kids, animals, career, traveling–literally anything. The only stipulation was that they had to love sharing the story. Then, I asked them to get into pairs, and pick who would share first.

Before the sharing began, I asked them to share the same story twice; 90 seconds each time. I kept track of the time, blowing the whistle at 90 seconds, and then having them switch. Essentially, in each pair, each person got to share their story twice.

The first time they told their exciting story, I asked the listeners to intentionally ignore (not listen to) their partner. Every distraction was fair game, except that they had to stay in their seats. They could use their phones, divert their eyes, rummage through their purse, or any other distraction. The only requirement was that they stay seated. They couldn’t get up and walk away.

Because it’s just an exercise, it’s hysterical to watch. Laughter, and sometimes even tears, flow from this part of the exercise.

At the 90-second mark, I blew the whistle. This time, I instructed them to actively listen as their partner re-told the same story.

Leadership Skill Listening – Explored

At the end of the exercise, I asked for a couple of volunteers to come on stage and share their experience; first of being ignored, and then of being actively listened to.

The most common answer to being ignored?  

“It made me not want to share any more.”

A close second response was,“This is exactly how I feel most of the time.”  

And what about when the partner actually listened? What was the top answer to being listened to?

“I felt like they cared.”

Listening To The Hospital Staff

Interestingly, just before we moved away from the listening exercise, a leader at a local hospital shared that, “Close to 90% people who come through the doors of our emergency room are there because they want someone to listen to them. There’s nothing actually wrong with them. They just want to be heard.”

I was flabbergasted. “90%?” I asked to make sure I heard that right.

“Yes, close to it,” she said. Meanwhile, another healthcare leader in the room, who was in a similar position at a different hospital, said they have the same problem.

I was stunned.

People go to a hospital, not because they’re hurt physically, but because they’re hurting to be heard. I stood there with the group and wanted to cry. Instead, I asked for more volunteers. I wanted to get more examples of how they knew when the other person was listening.

After several volunteers summed up their experiences, here’s what they shared about their listening partner.  They:

  • Put their phone away.
  • Kept eye contact.
  • Turned toward the speaker.
  • Leaned in to hear.
  • Provided facial expressions to show they were listening.

Why Do Teams Do Better With Leaders Who Listen?

When you listen, you’ll hear what they care about. Listening is actually the best way to get the information you need to help them get the resources they need. Listening helps you learn what’s needed to to increase their confidence, help them get unstuck, and ultimately succeed.

More than that, through demonstrating your honest and thoughtful care for them and their interests (listening), you gain their trust.

Listening leads to trust.

Trust is the key to leading an engaged team

Trust is the foundation for growth, individually and collectively. Leaders who listen are able to create trust in relationships.

The more trust, the more willingness people have to take the kinds of risks that lead to innovation and growth. Such trust cannot be manufactured—it must be developed over time; through listening, reflecting, and sharing.

Increased Trust Leads to Increased Retention

Imagine being in an environment where you feel safe to take risks, share your passions, and grow.  Why would you look for opportunities elsewhere? People tend to stay where they feel safe to create, contribute, and grow; right alongside their teammates.

When leaders care about the people on their team (often through the simple act of listening), they can hear (and remove) barriers to success, while helping them grow. Individual success breeds increased opportunity for everyone involved, including the leader, and the organization as a whole.

Lack of trust, on the flip side, leads to complacency, disengagement, and turn over. It also stifles creativity and collaboration.

Increased Trust Also Leads to Increased Care And Innovation

Trust leads to a willingness to take risks. Innovation requires some level of risk.  

Trust lets people know that they are on a team in which they’re celebrated, nurtured, and given ample space to expand. Trust leads people to want to show up fully (with passion, commitment, interest, and care for the work), and contribute to the best of their ability.

Innovation (growth) is multiplied when people come together under the framework of a team, where there is a high level of trust.

The Best Team Members Care About Their Work

It’s when they care about their results that high levels of trust are essential to risk-taking. (Conversely, getting people to take risks when they don’t care about their results is no big deal).

Leaders who want highly ambitious, passionate, and driven team members on their teams must create a foundation of trust. In other words, if you want to see what your employees are capable of achieving, trust is essential.  

Said simply, when you trust the people you work with, you’re more apt to take chances and risks. When you care about your results, such risks require a stronger foundation of trust.

Leaders who get this right (through the simple, though not always easy, act of listening) wind up with the most dedicated, loyal, eager, and growth-oriented team players.

Longevity and growth are the outcome of smart innovation.

Really listen, and ask questions

If you want to attract and retain (engage) highly ambitious, passionate employees, consider taking this most important step every single day—simply listen. Reflect back what you’re hearing, empower them to find their own answers, and then do what you can to help them succeed.

(Point of reflection: Who do you gravitate toward for support, encouragement, ideas, access, and resources? Why do you gravitate toward them?)

Misti Burmeister has been helping companies and leaders create a culture of trust for more than 15 years. Help your team reach its highest potential at https://MistiBurmeister.com