As a leader, the ability to listen to those around you is critical – and listening goes far beyond hearing. Listening is a skill that has to be learned and honed. Like all skills, we can learn much from leaders of the past who mastered the practice.
Nelson Mandela, who was known for listening to others’ points of view before voicing his own, learned the importance of this skill from another great leader: his father. Mandela often observed his father leading tribal meetings. As the tribal elders sat in a circle facing each other, his father would listen intently and ask questions solely to further understand what another was saying. Only after everyone had spoken would he offer his own comments. And, in his responses, Mandela’s father would always include remarks from the elders. Through these observations and his own experiences in life, Nelson Mandela learned that a good listener pays attention to the voices of others, contemplating and reflecting on the words, tone, context and nonverbal cues.
Another great listening leader was Abraham Lincoln, who led the country during one of the most significant and tumultuous periods of American history: the Civil War. Slavery was at the center of this conflict. Lincoln was firm in his conviction that enslaved people deserved the fundamental rights to be independent, self-reliant, and free. However, he was also well aware of the barriers created by the social and economic consequences of abolishing slavery in the Confederate states. As a result, Lincoln needed to understand what was taking place inside the heads and hearts of all parties involved in order to create a group listening environment that could break down barriers to decision making.
One of the most crucial times for a leader to listen effectively is when another person is discussing a problem about which they feel very strongly. Examples from Lincoln highlight the impact of listening in those moments. In the opening scenes of the movie Lincoln by Spielberg (2012), we witness him sitting in a Union Army camp conversing with two Black soldiers. To the untrained eye/ear, it would appear that our former president was willing to spend valuable time in what could seem to be a straightforward, uncomplicated conversation. However, it should be noted that Lincoln was listening intently and only speaking in moments to better understand what was being said. He did not use that time to motivate the troops and remind them of why they were fighting. Instead, he chose to listen, conveying the message that these men and their concerns were significant enough to be listened to, patiently, by their commander-in-chief.
Stories of Lincoln also provide us with examples of the importance of listening to those with whom we do not agree. In the book Heroes by Paul Johnson, we learn that Lincoln not only listened to opposing views but actively sought them out. When his secretary of state (with whom he often disagreed) was incapacitated and bedridden, Lincoln climbed into bed with Secretary Seward and held a whispered conversation with him about the next steps the administration should take. Lincoln could have easily used Seward’s incapacity as an excuse to avoid discussing this issue with him at all. But, as many have pointed out, that was not his way. He always found time for individuals and their unique perspectives.
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