Excellent leaders are excellent listeners

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Sean Sabin
  • 341st Missile Wing Staff Judge Advocate
"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." 

Ernest Hemingway
Author  and journalist (1899 - 1961)

As a judge advocate, the first thing I have to determine when providing counsel is the requirements of my client. A lawyer can be the smartest attorney and most dedicated student of the law, but if that person is unable to provide customer's advice on matters that are important to them, he or she is of little value. Likewise, as the head of an office and a representative of Malmstrom, it is critical that I understand the needs and desires of those with whom I interact. In order to ensure success when dealing with others, I must actively listen before taking action on a matter. This important trait, however, is not limited to those who work as judge advocates or in the legal field, but rather it is skill that all Airmen should work on honing - it will make you more effective at your job and more productive in your work center.

Last fall, I attended a leadership summit with more than 700 other judge advocates and civilian attorneys. In addition to Air Force Judge Advocate General Corps leaders, attendees included senior military counsel from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and six other nations: Australia, Canada, Chile, Israel, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Numerous dignitaries addressed the conference, including the Honorable Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the United States Air Force, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, but one speaker that made a particular impression on me was John Baldoni, a leadership communications consultant. Mr. Baldoni explained to us that many leaders fail to practice the art of listening because they have so many other things to do. He challenged us to add "listen to my people" as an item on our to-do lists. He also encouraged us to turn listening into an active step rather than a passive one. Here are a few pointers I took away from Mr. Baldoni's presentation: 

· Invent communication loops. Conventional communications are one way: the leader speaks, employees listen. This practice is good for getting a message out, but is lousy for determining its impact or for allowing people to react. Leaders need to open feedback channels by encouraging interaction outside of the office environment, such as by inviting employees to breakfast or lunch or meeting them for coffee. It is important that leaders refrain from speaking too much during these events and instead focus on listening to what others are telling them. 

· Stay in the loop. Leaders can too easily fall into the trap of being cut off from what's really happening. The closed door leads to the closed mind. It is up to the leader to meet and mingle with people of all levels and to ask questions regularly.

I recently read about Col. Joseph P. Buche, who was named a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., in July 2009 after having commanded the Third United States Infantry Regiment. The article described the unique way in which Colonel Buche actively listens to those who serve under him -- he expects his junior officers to disagree with him on something important, and tell him about it, at least three times per quarter. Through this bold initiative, Colonel Buche ensures frequent and unvarnished communications to truly get a pulse on what is occurring in the organization he leads.

Listening is, by nature, a passive activity, but when transformed into an active process it may be one of the most important actions a leader can perform. Active listening leads to greater understanding of the situation, the challenges, and, most importantly, the people who are depending on their supervisors and fellow Airmen, as well their legal counsel, for sound judgment and positive results.

"It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen." 

Oliver Wendell Holmes
Author and physician (1809 - 1894)