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Ju Se-Young

Be a Listening Leader

Ju Se-Young

Aug. 20, 2010

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Good communication has become an ever-more essential component for a healthy corporate culture and effective leadership. And an excellent beginning for effective communication is the ability to be a good listener. In today's organizations, however, which are characterized by relentlessly intensifying competition and super speed, it is not easy for employees to listen to their colleagues, and more difficult for leaders to keep a close ear to their staff.

Eastern philosophy offers wise insights about how leaders can be more effective communicators by improving their listening skills. Take for example the classic parable about the wooden fighting cock by ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzhi. According to the tale, King Xuan Wang of the Zhou Dynasty of China (ca 1045-256 BC) enjoyed watching cockfights. One day he asked famed cock-fighting master Ji Shengzi to train a fighting cock. After ten days of training, King Xuan asked, "Is the cock ready for a fight?"  Ji Shengzi said, "Not yet.  He is still haughty and conceited." Another ten days went by.  King Xuan asked again, and Ji said "Not yet.  He is still glaring and domineering." After another ten days went by, King Xuan asked once more.  Ji Shenzi's reply was the same. After another ten days, Ji Shengzi replied, "He is about ready for the fight.  When other cocks crow, he is not affected.  He looks like a cock made of wood.  Other cocks dare not challenge him, they will simply run away."

Zhuangzi emphasized the importance of communication more than any other philosophers. He said that good listening skill is the beginning of good communication. While the wooden cock story suggests various virtues, one of the most valuable insights it provides to modern leadership is that a leader's listening positively influences voluntary commitment by employees.

By listening to his employees, leader builds trust and gives them an opportunity to express their views and ideas in an inviting atmosphere. That in turns boosts their commitment to the workplace. King Xuan listened to Master Ji and instilled trust in him, and continuously gave him time to succeed. Master Ji responded to the king's expectations and support, and displayed initiative to get the best result. Listening carefully allows the development of a virtuous relationship of trust-opportunity- initiative, and is the basic quality that a leader should possess to engender maximum performance.

The first positive impact of effective listening is that it forms trust between the leader and subordinate. When a leader listens to an employee he shows interest in what he/she is saying and a common ground is established. Employees strongly trust a leader who respects them.

Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay, a US-based company that sells skin care and cosmetics products, writes in her autobiography that the company was able to become the bestselling skin care and cosmetics brand for the last 13 years after its founding because it trusted its employees, and most of all, listened carefully to them. Mary Kay Ash said that showing empathy towards others and listening to them are the most crucial quality that a leader should possess. Failing to listen to what employees say is an arrogant and negligent behavior, she said. She met with employees to learn about their troubles and hear suggestions, and replied to their emails.

The second positive impact of effective listening is that it provides opportunities to employees. If the leader carefully listens to an employee's proposal and adopts it, the employee has an opportunity to promote it. A good leader continuously provides employees with opportunities to cultivate their potential capabilities. Tom Peters, a US management guru, said, that leaders should provide opportunities to talented employees as much as they spend time and enthusiasm to nurturing them. He said that opportunity is a power that awakens the capability underlying an employee, emphasizing that giving opportunity is essential in nurturing skilled talents.

The success of Apple lies in Steve Jobs' listening to his employees and giving them opportunities to succeed. John Lasseter, c hief creative officer at Pixar, proposed a 3D animation business to Jobs, who listened carefully and allowed him to proceed. Lasseter won the 1988 Academy Award for Animated Short Film Tin Toy, enabling Pixar to create as many 3D animation movies as Toy Story and Car. Jobs afterwards called himself a chief listening officer and listened more carefully to his employees.

The final positive impact of careful listening is that it boosts self initiative. When an employee takes on full responsibility after given a chance, work efficiency can be maximized. Findings of the 2010 Global Works Study by Towers Watson, a global consulting firm, show that 48% of Korean workers are disenchanted with their jobs, and only 6% consider themselves as fully engaged.

This suggests that in Korea , where hierarchy is still considered important, individual initiative and creativity is not encouraged. But the modern era calls for creativity more than ever. Providing an accommodative workplace can foster voluntary engagement, which will boost employee enthusiasm and creativity, enabling higher performance. For that to happen, a leader needs to constantly hear employees' ideas and allow them to try.

With global companies rushing to exploring new businesses, a listening leadership is the beginning of finding new business and top performance. It is also a determinant to success and failure. Even when company has sufficient resources and excellent experts, if its leader does not listen carefully to the employees ' opinion and give them opportunity, he will only foster cock fights, not a wooden cock that possess creative competitiveness and the ability to win without fighting. In a super-competitive world, a leader can make maximize a new business only when he communicate with employees and listen to them carefully and facilitate their creative engagement.

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