The Critical Leadership Skill Most Leaders Don’t Have

Critical Leadership Skill
'There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.' ~ Simon SinekClick To Tweet

I learned how to make someone cry yesterday. Not because I learned some nasty words, or a painful torture technique, but because I learned the true power of listening. Listening not just to the words that are said, but the words that are not said. And the essence behind the words that are said.

Critical Leadership Skill

Someone spoke to me for three minutes. I listened. At the end of the three minutes, I relayed back to her what I understood from what she said… not just the words themselves, but the feelings behind them. I said 28 words, and she cried.

And I’ve never felt more connected to a non-family member in my whole life. I have known this woman for less than 48 hours.

Simon Sinek has been telling us about this for a while now…

But until you experience it yourself, you’ll continue to believe that you are already a good listener and that you have nothing to learn. But I have learned that listening is the most critical leadership skill and it’s as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth.

So in today’s article, I’m going to try my best to explain the reasons why I think everyone – but leaders especially – need to be better listeners.  And how to improve this skill even if you already think you’re pretty good.

Why Listening Matters

'I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I'm going to learn, I must do it by listening.' ~ Larry KingClick To Tweet

Most of the time most of us are inside our own heads. Our issues… our hopes… our anxieties… our successes… our failures. …What’s for dinner.

That’s normal.

Critical Leadership Skill

It also means that we’re less receptive to other people and less connected to what is going on around us.

Listening… truly listening… to someone else is incredibly powerful. For them.

It’s selfless. It’s generous. The act of genuinely listening to someone else makes them feel valued and affirmed. It makes them feel less alone. It may even, practiced artfully, help them have an insight into a problem they’re facing. A problem to which they already had the answer within them, but weren’t able to access.

Listening is all about the other person. It isn’t about waiting to add something about you. It isn’t about solving that person’s problems. It isn’t about teaching them something they don’t know. And it isn’t about talking.

It’s about forming a partnership built on trust.

Perhaps most importantly though, genuine listening means believing that the other person is already whole, and has the answers to their own problems within them already.

As a leader, this can be challenging. We see our employees as lacking in certain skills or experiences. We know our own experiences have helped us. We want to help people improve.

Or worse, we’re just plain busy and distracted.

But imagine, just for a minute, that by listening generously to someone else, asking questions (infrequently) that enable them to elaborate and explore the things they are talking about, allowing them to make sense of their own issues in a cohesive way, you cause them to have an a-ha – a breakthrough. An insight. They see the answer to their problem.

They leave the engagement feeling affirmed and supported, but more importantly, they leave the conversation feeling empowered and confident. They solved a problem they didn’t know they could solve. They answered a question they didn’t know they had the answer to. And most importantly, they gain confidence that next time they have an issue, they have the power within them to resolve it.

You know those engaged, productive employees who demonstrate good judgment and initiative? The answer doesn’t lie in engagement action plans and culture change initiatives… the answer is listening.

Five Ways To Improve Your Listening Skills


'Compassionate listening is to help the other side suffer less. If we realize that other people are the same people as we are, we are no longer angry at them.' ~ Thich Nhat HanhClick To Tweet

Start here. Building a meditation practice enables you to be more ‘present’ in every facet of your life. Including when you are holding a conversation with someone. I use the Headspace app. It’s great. But there are loads of other ways to do this.

Critical Leadership Skill

Meditation is like cross-fit for your brain. It’s exercising the muscles that allow you to quiet your mind and be present in the current moment. It also strengthens your ability to focus.


How many conversations do you have every day? 10? 50? 100? When you add up your work day, time with your family, catching up with friends, I’d guess it’s quite a few. I’m an introvert and I reckon I’d comfortably have between 40 and 80 conversations a day – ranging from a few phrases, to an hour long.

Start seeing all of these as an opportunity to practice your listening skills. Pay attention to what the other person is saying. Imagine that you will need to paraphrase it back to someone else afterwards. Pay attention to the words and phrases they use, but also what they don’t say.

Focus on understanding the meaning of the words for the other person. Not just for you. They’re not choosing those words for your benefit. The words mean something to them.

Make Time

To have a meaningful conversation, you may need to make more time. At least to begin with. I know time is tight, and it’s your most valuable resource, but surely your relationships with other people come a pretty close second!

Some people take time to realise the power of their own words… so make time for them to form them, share them, and reflect on them.

Talk Less

I’m afraid those brilliant insights and helpful experiences you’re dying to share need to wait. To build a powerful conversation focused on the other person, aim to talk about 20% of the time.

This will feel unnatural. You’re used to talking. If not more than others, then definitely half the time. Get comfortable with waiting. Be OK with silence. Understand that this isn’t about you.


Learn how to focus solely on the person you’re listening to. Be aware of the distracting thoughts (and things) that get in the way, and come back to focus. Try and create the sense that the two of you are the only people in the world right now.

Again, a meditation and mindfulness practice will help you here.

Be Curious

I know how interesting you are – you know how interesting you are. But wouldn’t it be nice to realise that other people are just as interesting as you!

Well I’ve got good news! When you listen to others with genuine curiosity, they become more interesting purely by virtue of you being more receptive and engaged. What you seek, you tend to find. If you are expecting tedium, you’ll find it, but if you’re expecting brilliance and wit, you’ll find that too.

'Listening is a master skill for personal and professional greatness.' ~ Robin S. SharmaClick To Tweet

I hope this helps. These are hard concepts to explain in writing, but they’ve been absolute game-changers for me. That’s what I wish for you too.


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