Leading by listening

By Ken Behr

One of the lost arts in leadership is the simple art of listening. It has been said that we have two ears but only one mouth so we can hear twice as much as we say. Unfortunately, I was one of those individuals that had this insatiable need to fill in the silence in many meeting with my own words and my own thoughts.

In the business world, management style started changing dramatically more than 30 years ago. Some of the best business schools were encouraging a proven concept known as MBO or “Management-by-Objectives.” The key of this management practice was management sitting down with each employee and actually listening to them. The theory was that if both the team leader and the team members agreed on objectives, the resources and the goals, there would be enough buy-in from everyone to get the task accomplished.

Management and leadership styles in the churches have improved but in many ways continue to lag far behind what some of the best secular organizations have embraced. All too often, our church leaders feel that they need to be the ones that communicate in order to lead and that means that silence actually makes them feel rather insecure.

Cultural differences

I’ve spent some time in other cultures and this isn’t necessarily true globally. I’ve noticed that often the senior Japanese executives, for example, are mostly silent. Nodding their ascent from time to time these Japanese leaders allow others to speak while they merely listen.

However, in the U.S., our senior managers are the talkative ones. This is unfortunate as often what we as leaders need to be saying are not so much declarative sentences but simple questions. Questions like, “how can I help?” “How are you doing on the project?” “Do you have the resources you need to accomplish your objective?” and “How is the rest of the team responding to your needs?”

While we understand in the church that we need to work as a team, all too often the most verbal of our team members are the team leaders. This often defeats the very objectives of the team which are shared responsibility, commitment, cooperation and accountability.

Becoming helpful

If we can check ourselves and allow others to speak or better yet, when speaking ask clarifying questions, others will tell you how, as a leader, you can become the most helpful. With enough practice we can regain the lost art of listening and become better leaders.

In the Bible, we are advised to listen to one another. James, the Lord’s brother emphasizes that listening is at least twice as good as talking when he says that we are to be “quick to listen and slow to speak.” (James 1:19).  Jesus also comments on our ability to listen. In Luke 10, we have the story of Martha and Mary. Luke says that “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” but that Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he had to say.

Ken Behr is a frequent contributor to Church Executive.


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