Effective leadership hinges on learning to listen, engage

We often read or hear in the media about leaders whose lack of courage brought painful consequences. But these “spectacular” failures are just the tip of the iceberg. Doubts and fears of a much smaller magnitude have caused legions of leaders to fail in less obvious ways.

Although these failures don’t make the newspapers, they nevertheless can suck the energy and life out of the people and organizations they affect.

By learning to listen and engage in a healthy way, many of these less-obvious failures could be avoided.

Tune in your ear

Many leaders fail to listen to the ideas, opinions and constructive feedback of others. Some go so far as to use intimidation to silence “threatening” ideas. Still others suppress ideas by dominating conversations and not allowing others to speak. These leaders may appear “macho” on the outside, but in reality their fears and insecurities send a loud message that they don’t want anyone to disagree with their view of the world.

Unfortunately, most of us know how exhausting and demoralizing it can be to work for a leader whose tender ego must be carefully guarded. If you suspect that you are this type of person, get a “leadership 360 assessment” so your direct reports, peers and manager or board of directors can give you candid, anonymous feedback. That will take some real courage on everyone’s part.

If the results indicate a problem, don’t rationalize your behaviors or demonize the messengers. Engage the issues and grow into the leader you can be, the one that your followers deserve.

When the truth is courageously communicated, people and organizations flourish. But when doubts and fears hold sway, leaders avoid hard decisions and responsible actions and instead look for a comfortable way out. At best, team energy drains away and people don’t grow. Too often, fear and doubt cause bad judgment that derails the leader’s influence.

Choosing to engage

Leaders who lack courage to engage problems usually veer off course in one of two directions: they either seek to dominate or seek to withdraw. Both of these counterproductive behaviors have the same root cause: fears and doubts.

I’ve found the Leadership Engagement Model™ helpful to improve the cooperation and productivity of teams working cross-functionally, especially if a “silo mentality” is prevalent. It has also been beneficial for strategic partners who have competing interests.

To halt this vicious cycle competing interests may have, the two sides need to engage in productive dialog, identify common goals and implement agreed-upon solutions. Meaningful engagement occurs when each party fights for its ideas in a healthy, constructive way, while still being open to the ideas of others. This type of dialog is evidence of humility, courage and confidence.

Doubts and fears are normal. You can’t avoid them, but you can manage them. You can choose to override your feelings and do the right thing. You can choose to lean into the pain for the good of others and yourself.

Lee Ellis is president of Leadership Freedom® LLC. He is a nationally recognized consultant, presenter and retired U.S. Air Force colonel. He shares his expertise in the areas of leadership, team building and human performance. His latest award-winning book about his Vietnam prisoner of war experience is entitled “Leading with Honor®: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.” www.leadingwithhonor.com