We are about to enter a confrontation.  What is our mindset?  

Is our basic attitude of one seeking to understand?

A new leader had recently been named head of a large, important and difficult-to-administer public institution.  After a short time in the role, he realized things weren’t going well.  He decided to do an experiment, Robert Greenleaf shares in The Servant as Leader.  

For three months, he stopped reading or watching the news.  Instead, he relied wholly upon those he worked with to tell him what was going on.  

In three months his administrative problems were resolved: “No miracles were wrought; but out of a sustained intentness of listening that was produced by this unusual decision, this able man learned and received the insights needed to set the right course,” writes Robert.  

“And he strengthened his team by so doing.” 

Why is there so little listening? Why is this example so exceptional? 

When faced with difficulty, many time we react by asking: Who is to blame?    

As servant leaders, when we have a problem, we ask a different question:  “What can I do about my problem?” 

When we choose this path we will likely respond by listening.  Many times someone will tell us what the problem is and recommend a path forward.  Or, perhaps we hear enough to get an intuitive insight to resolve it.

“The servant-leader is functionally superior because he or she is closer to the ground,” writes Robert.  

When we seek to understand, we hear things, see things, and learn things that give us intuitive insight.  Because of that we are dependable and trusted.

“The best test of whether we are communicating at this depth is to ask ourselves, first, are we really listening?  Are we listening to the one we want to communicate to?” asks Robert.  “Remember that great line from the prayer of St. Francis, ‘Lord, grant that I may not seek so much to be understood as to understand.’” 

Roberts suggests that learning to listen first is a key strategy for us who aspire to servant leadership.  He writes: “I have seen enough remarkable transformations in people who have been trained to listen to have some confidence in this approach.”

Why does this approach work?

“It is because true listening builds strength in other people,” he states. 

Learning to listen also transforms the listener.  The servant leader “views any problem in the world as in here, inside him or herself, not out there,” Robert writes.  “And if a flaw in the world is to be remedied, to the servant the process of change starts in here, in the servant, not out there.”

As we enter the holiday season, let us consider and appreciate some additional words of wisdom from Robert:  “So it is with joy.  Joy is inward, it is generated inside. It is not found outside and brought in.  It is for those who accept the world as it is, part good, part bad, and who identify with the good by adding a little island of serenity to it.”


Reflection:  What’s my default setting: seek to understand, or to be understood? 

Action:  Talk less.  Listen more today.

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