A core characteristic of any strong and authentic leader is a continuous willingness to listen and learn. Recently, I had an opportunity to watch a practice session of the great Rodger Federer. Amazing shots, unparalleled skill level, phenomenal footwork, unbelievable precision, incredible concentration… I could go on and on. However, what was striking to me was his willingness to listen when one of his coaching staff approached and encouraged him to adjust his backhand by stepping differently into the ball, adjusting the backswing and follow-through – even demonstrating to the Greatest of All Time how to do it. No question that Rodger Federer is likely able to hit the backhand a thousand times better than his coach, but regardless, he listened, learned, made the adjustment and proceeded to hit 20 perfect backhands in a row.
I have observed many leaders who listen and learn extremely well – but I have also witnessed countless examples when this in not happening. Therefore, I was thinking, what are some those disruptors and roadblocks preventing leaders from a willingness to listen and learn?
1. Too busy and/or overwhelmed by execution priorities. No question, we live in an accelerated world. Everything is fast-paced, real-time and we rush from one thing to another. This can lead to an argument which I hear all too often that we are too busy getting work done, to take time to learn something new, or listen to someone with a different perspective. This execution trap is extremely dangerous and the "no-time" argument reduces the willingness to listen and learn. The negative implications are all too obvious – especially as most existing business models are going through fundamental transformations. Therefore, leaders have a responsibility to find ways to make time for their teams and themselves.
2. Hubris fueled by expertise and experience. I have observed many executives and managers over the years, whose excessive pride or self-confidence in their expertise and experiences, made them unwilling to listen and learn. They know it all. They have seen it before. They are the smartest person in the room. They should leave this hubris behind and be more humble. I had an extremely successful mentor who was nothing like that and who had this restless need for learning. He was never satisfied. He would continuously read and engage everyone on a wide range of topics. Coupled with his thirst for knowledge was a unique capability to attentively listen, making you highly comfortable in sharing your views and perspectives and most importantly left you feeling heard.
3. Status-quo comfort and change resistance. Another factor preventing a listening and learning mindset is a prevalence of being comfortable with the status quo and a general resistance to change. This is all too common and I have observed many justifying this mindset by pointing to how successful and "well" the current business model is performing. Especially, in the absence of external catalysts or clear and present dangers, many fall into the boiling frog syndrome. Encouraging a culture of open-mindedness and continuous willingness to learn from others is therefore paramount.
4. Politics and the perception of power. Unfortunately, many are closed-minded and unwilling to listen and learn because they feel the need to protect their position, have a fear of losing power, or are worried about perceived political pressures. Sometimes hierarchical structures unintentionally reinforce this. I had a manager once who always reminded everyone about his title and how many people reported to him. He always needed to control the conversation and would continuously shut down ideas which were not his. He thought that his influence and power came from the stature of his position. Maybe not surprisingly, he was not successful in the long-run.
5. Listening = agreeing. Another disruptor I have observed is that for some, listening equates to agreement. While this one may not be as prevalent as some of the other disruptors, I have observed multiple examples where this mindset limits constructive dialogues and open discussions.
We all should keep these disruptors in mind and check those proverbial egos at the door. Each of us deserves to be on a team or in an organization that fosters a culture of continuous listening and learning. Ironically, those who are at the very top, like Rodger Federer, are most willing to do this – and this may be a big reason why they got there in the first place. Simply put by Steve Jobs, "There is always one more thing to learn". And, adding one more quote from a fellow-Austrian, Formula 1 champion, Niki Lauda, who passed away this week: "From success, you learn absolutely nothing".