24 Jun 2020 16:52 IST

Successful leaders are great speakers — and listeners too

To become an effective communicator, you must also lend your ears with an open mind

There is one underlining trait that sets great leaders apart; great leaders are great communicators. Throughout history, we have innumerable examples of this. Speeches, such as “I have the heart and stomach of a king” by Elizabeth I and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream”, have won battles and changed history. Many other leaders, such as Barack Obama and Narendra Modi, have used their excellent oratory skills to sway people to their side and win their hearts and, most importantly, votes.

In the business world, great communicators have carved a much deeper distinction between their products and solutions than their competition. A few have even managed to create fervent loyalty among consumers that they practically beg for the introduction of new variants or products and carry those around more proudly than their own skins. While we sing praises of great communicators, can we do without great listeners? Is listening a quality that a leader can do without?

Ones who listen

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, by Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, quite says it all.

Good speakers are charismatic and appealing, aren’t they? More often than not, ‘speaking’ is feted by us, while we overlook the vital half of communication — ‘listening’. Amazon throws 40,000 results for books on “great speeches”. If you look closely, you will realise that for whom we feel the truest deference and affection, and are ready to go the extra mile — say, work late nights or even over the weekends, are not the ones who are great speakers but the ones who listen to us.

With all the noise, distraction, and so much going on, it is challenging to be a good listener, however, to become a good communicator and a leader, you have to be a good listener first.

When you listen genuinely, you understand what exactly the other person wants, you learn to read the person, his or her emotions beyond the mere spoken words. But the problem is that we mostly don’t listen with open minds. We are busy preparing how we are going to react to what the other person is saying, or worse, our unequivocal belief that we are right even before the person has started speaking.

Forges stronger rapport

But we must remember that listening helps forge stronger relations, rapport, and trust between people and teams. When you listen truthfully, you are interested in the speaker, and it shows without trying from the kind of questions you ask. It can help in averting conflicts and prevent crisis. A leader must listen with compassion, without judgment, and with an open mind. While it is human to judge people, to become good listeners and a better leader, we need to suspend judgment.

My grandmother always asked me to listen (to guests) more than speaking my mind. She would pinch my ears and say, “God has given us two ears and only one mouth for some reason”. While I made faces and cocked a snook at her (from a safe distance), I am grateful for the wisdom she shared with us as I grew up. A great leader has to be a great listener. After all, listening allows us to connect with people better, and successful leadership thrives on rich connections.

And by the way, the world’s best speeches even include those that were full of lies and deceit too, for example, Lenin’s “All Power to the Soviets” address in 1917; with historical hindsight, we know he had no such intentions.

(The writer is Lead PR (Product and Technology, Western Digital India, a consumer and enterprise technology company.)