The Best Behaviors for Listening Leaders

music listening

By Lee Ellis | It’s time that I confess something to you. I’m not naturally a good listener; I have several personality challenges that undermine this area for me. When you review my natural Leadership Behavior DNA, our coaching and training assessment, struggles include being impatient, taking charge too quickly, and at times I can be too confident in my own opinions—all of which threaten my ability to be a good listener.

A few years ago I made a commitment to become a better listener at home with my wife Mary because we had transitioned into being empty-nesters. It was quite a challenge for me, but today Mary would say that I’m a much better listener. It has greatly improved our communication and relationship. But listening is not just a gift for family relationships, it’s also the most powerful skill that leaders can master with their team members.

This Valuable Behavior Revealed

“Choosing to listen is easy when it’s obviously beneficial for us, but to focus and listen when it’s needed (and we don’t want to listen) requires great effort and sacrifice. It can even feel like suffering!” [Tweet This]

Over my leadership development and coaching career, I’ve surveyed hundreds of leaders and managers asking them to identify the one key attribute of their greatest leader that made them such an exceptional leader (we ask them to exclude integrity and diligence, which are assumed pre-requisites). Can you guess the number one answer by a significant margin? “They listened to me.”

Whether it’s a leader naturally skewed towards relationships or results, successful, honorable leaders learn how to listen. Listening is strategically important for two reasons –

  • It provides clarity which is essential for good execution, accountability, and results.
  • It builds strong relationships and trust because it makes people feel respected, valued, and important—some of our deepest personal needs as human beings.

Musical Listening Tips

Several years for our wedding anniversary, I took Mary to New York City. It was a fabulous experience and was enriched when we were invited to a holiday party by one of my clients. At this party, I struck up a conversation with a most interesting fellow named Harry Glantz, and we somehow got into the subject of listening.

Harry serves as the VP/HR for a company in New York, but he started his career as a professional trumpet player. In our short conversation Harry shared five music-related insights on listening that have served him in life and career. Listen closely, as they could be music to your ears too –

  1. Multi-Task to Be a Good Listener. Good listening does take focus, but a good listener also has to multi-task. In an orchestra, it’s not good enough to play; you have to hear the music of others and blend with them. Listen to all of the moving parts to get the meaning of the conversation rather than just playing your notes.
  2. Intonation—You Have to Play in Tune. An A note is pitched (tuned) at 440 Hz or it grinds on you. Think of some political leaders who are never on the same page in their conversations because they’re not listening to each other. Being in tune verbally is mastering not only what’s being said, but the tone so that you can respond with some degree of resonance.
  3. Find the Rhythm. Listening is waiting for the right moment to contribute to the conversation. If everyone in the orchestra played whenever they felt like it, the sound would be confusing and irritating!
  4. Be Creative in Your Response. Listening closely allows you to be more creative and relevant in the conversation. You’ll be smarter if you listen first, engage your brain, and then analyze your response smartly.
  5. Practice Listening. Musicians practice for hours, and good listeners need practice too. One way to practice is “listening” in a wide variety of situations, even while reading emails. If you have a question in these scenarios, practice asking a clarifying question and then listen.

Generational Listening

Younger generations—Millennials, Gen Z, and others—have unique technology and cultural insights that older generations need to understand.

“Regardless of age or experience, listening must be reciprocal. We all need to listen, but unfortunately we still have a few leaders who are tone deaf.” [Tweet This]

They likely won’t hear this message, but let’s not be like them.

The gift of listening requires sacrificial humility, courage, commitment, and lots of practice. But if you make this effort, your suffering will be rewarded in better relationships and better outcomes at home and at work. Happy Holidays.


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