Why Listening and Learning is Key to Effective Leadership

group of people talking

One of the most profound lessons I have learned throughout my leadership journey is the importance of listening and learning before you lead. In fact, I find it to be so essential to successful leadership that I hung those words on the walls of In Time Tec. 

The artwork is more than just decor - the words serve as a constant reminder for the leaders in our company. We see these words in our offices daily and often gather beneath them during all-staff meetings. They inform and guide every employee in our office since we truly believe that anyone can be a leader, regardless of title or role. 

In the Ted Talk on this topic, Stanley McChrystal says, “I came to believe that a leader isn’t good because they’re right; they’re good because they’re willing to learn and trust.” 

When a leader comes into any domain, or an area where they need to lead, one of their main responsibilities is to make things progress forward. However, an individual is not in a position to be a leader until they have both listened to and learned from those around them. This is because it is difficult for a leader to effectively progress forward until they are aware of why things are the way they are, and why people are the way they are. 


Listening is key throughout the entire process of being a leader. Distinguishing the difference between hearing what someone is saying and listening to what someone is saying is crucial. Hearing is simply defined as the process, function, or power of perceiving sound. Whereas listening is to hear something with thoughtful attention in order to understand. Listening requires focus and attention, hearing does not. Furthermore, it is important for a leader to listen to understand, rather than to listen to reply. Imagine you are walking through a grocery store; all the sounds of shopping carts, voices from the distance, and music playing in the background you are simply hearing. Now when your child tells you that they are in pain, you will listen to understand where the pain is coming from and how you can help alleviate it.  

In order to listen to someone, you need to have compassion. Make it clear that you care about what the other party has to offer. It is also important to keep in mind that listening does not equal agreeing with someone. You can listen to someone and acknowledge their opinion without agreeing with what they are saying. 

Listening to someone starts with an internal conversation with yourself. In this conversation, you must acknowledge that there may be something in the other person’s sharing that you may not know. Next, you should externally ask the other person questions to deepen your understanding. Then, you need to do the intellectual work by analyzing their answers. This is when you should ask further exploratory questions until you create a common understanding with the other party. By the end of the conversation, you will see the other person's point of view and have helped them to understand yours. Until you do that, continue asking exploratory questions. I like to call this dancing in the conversation. Keep in mind, you can only dance in the conversation when you know that you do not know everything. 


Additionally, it is crucial that the leader takes time to learn why things are the way they are. Furthermore, learning is necessary in order for a leader to be trustworthy and get people to buy in. In doing so, they should learn the domain and earn respect/trust from their followers. Stephen M.R. Covey states in his book, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, “Trust is equal parts character and competence... You can look at any leadership failure, and it's always a failure of one or the other.” Without establishing trust, it is nearly impossible to enroll others. If you want people to trust you as a leader, you must first demonstrate that you are capable of leading them to a better future. The best way to learn and build the competence is to ask questions. There are three types of potential questions to ask:

  • Leading questions: “Don’t you think that another more tenured employee is more capable of completing this project?”
  • Avoiding responsibility questions: “I don’t understand how to finish this project. Can you do it for me?”
  • Seeking to understand questions: “You want me to look into this project. Can you explain to me a bit more why you want me to work on this project? What outcome are you looking for? What timeline? What skills do you want me to bring forth?”

The first two types of questions will not lead to any learning. But the third will open up a conversation that allows you to learn about the domain you are stepping into. You must learn how the domain works and have the expertise, capabilities, and competencies needed to be a successful leader in that domain or you can not be an effective leader. You can only build competency when you learn and you need to have a discipline to learn the domain that you are leading for. 

To do so, you need a platform that is in alignment with your existing skills and knowledge. For example, I can be a powerful leader at In Time Tec, but if I were to walk into a hospital, nobody would care what I have to offer because I don’t have competency in the medical field. However, I can build competency in a domain such as public speaking because that is aligned with what I already know and am committed to learning more about.

It is important that you do a clear audit for a given domain. Find out what is required for that domain. Then ask yourself, what do you have that will contribute to this? Identify the gap between what you know and what is required - what do you need to learn? There are multiple different approaches to learning. You can teach yourself, find a coach to help you, find an area for you to practice with people who can help you, or find a feedback loop where you can complete a task and receive feedback. Then you should make adjustments accordingly.


After listening and learning, leading others becomes easy. By default, you will become a servant leader because you are serving others; you have engaged with them on a level where they feel heard and you have learned the domain and proved your capabilities so they now trust you. 

When you try to lead without understanding (listening and learning) the current situation or people, you will make everyone wrong in the process. Another side effect of not listening and learning before leading is that the leader will not know what other people are thinking and therefore will not know how to improve. After listening to what your employees need and learning why things are the way they are, you will be informed about the mindset of the people you’re leading and therefore be able to lead them more successfully.

If you are so gotten by the domain in which you are leading, your contribution will create a better future. Leadership starts with love and trust. Love is experienced when you show compassion and you can’t have compassion without listening. Similarly trust requires competency and you can’t have competency without learning. Therefore you cannot lead without listening and learning. 

Steps for servant leadership:

  1. Show love and compassion
  2. Create a compelling and shared vision
  3. Communicate the created vision clearly
  4. Take actions to make the vision a reality  
  5. Evaluate results and focus on the process
  6. Keep doing it until you achieve the desired results

Anyone can be a leader. But, by listening and learning before you lead, you will gain the necessary respect and attention from the people you’re leading to progress forward. Leadership is just like entering a pool -- you can either canon ball in for attention and upset those who were already in the pool, or you can wade in and integrate seamlessly with the rest of the participants. I encourage you to pay attention to the ways and reasons you are leading. Are you trying to make a splash to prove you are the best leader, or are you wading in and truly seeking to understand, committed to learn whatever is required so that you can forward the action and make a difference you truly stand for?

**Check out the related podcast and video on this topic.