Some people seem to have an innate ability to lead, guiding others with a strong, assured personality that makes his or her decisions seem almost inherently right. These leaders almost seem to have an inner voice that tells them exactly what to do next. They don’t need to (or sometimes simply won’t) listen to others when making decisions. For this type of leader, General George Patton comes to mind.
But I prefer a different leadership style, one where the leader listens first, learns second, and leads third. General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. and International forces in Afghanistan, is a perfect example of this type of leader. General McChrystal has spoken extensively about the need to listen and learn in order to lead a new generation of young soldiers – some of whom were only in the 6th grade on 9/11. In a world where instant communication and rapid decision-making have become the norm over the course of two decades, McChrystal had to learn how his young soldiers interact with one another. He had to learn how to use Facebook, Twitter, webinars, and other online forms of communication in a way that allows him to instantly build credibility and trust with his soldiers. Check out his TED Talk on the matter here.
This ability to adapt is not unique to the social media era of the Information Age, either. Prior to the rise of social networking, Jack Welch – the “CEO of CEOs” who served as Chairman of GE from 1981 to 2001 – knew that leaders would benefit from listening and learning from the very people they were leading. Thus, Jack Welch became a pioneer in “reverse mentoring.” During his tenure, he ordered 500 top-level executives to reach out to people below them in order to learn how to use the internet effectively. Mr. Welch himself was matched with an employee in her 20s who taught him personally how to surf the Web. The mentoring system ultimately benefited both sides – the executives learned the skills they needed to compete in a rapidly modernizing business environment, and the younger mentors earned visibility and credibility with the company’s executives.
That’s why whenever I take on a civic campaign – which requires me to lead clients, boards, staff, and coalition members – the first thing I do is embark on a “Listen and Learn Tour.” I meet with as many key people as possible to gain their insights, advice, and counsel. In the process, I get to test any new ideas I may have while learning things I would never have known otherwise. It also starts the process of engaging my clients in a soon-to-be-developed shared vision. But most importantly of all, it helps me be a better leader of that civic campaign.
Jack Welch once said, “I was afraid of the internet… because I couldn’t type.” General McChrystal said, “leaders aren’t good because they are right. Leaders are good because they are willing to learn and trust.” And if we strive to be great leaders ourselves, those are words worth listening to.