The Leader who Listened

Mark Upton
Mar 1 2019

“They are after strong leadership…someone to come in with a clear plan”

A snippet from a recent conversation where we discussed a national sports body looking to fill a senior position in the organisation. It drew me back to a moment in time a couple of years ago where my conversational partner burst out in exasperation “she just doesn’t listen!” in regards to a “strong leader” occupying a similar senior position with a national sports body (in a different country).

Yet why would they listen? There is no need to listen when the expectation (held by them and/or others) is they already have all the answers and just need to direct people to execute their allocated duties against The Plan.

Where does this desire for the archetypical “heroic leader” come from? And what context(s), if any, is it suited to? The senior position to be filled in the example above faces a number of long-standing challenges in the sport that could be deemed intractable/wicked/stuck problems. Arguably listening, rather than enforcing predetermined plans and directions, could be amongst the most useful approaches employed in these contexts. But what kind of listening?

Beth Tener has written a great post on listening, referencing Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. Reading Beth’s post brought me back to previous explorations of Scharmer’s collaborative endeavours, in particular the highly aspirational Societal Transformation Lab.

Listening is at the source of all great leadership. A key source of leadership failure is lack of listening.”

– Otto Scharmer

4 ways of listening are defined (read Beth’s post for more detail):

  • downloading
  • factual
  • empathic
  • generative

Aspects of what Beth goes on to describe of generative listening in group settings very much resonates with our efforts at myfastestmile to facilitate similar with people in sport…

“…encourage empathic and generative listening, providing the space for many people to share their ideas and stories and encouraging participants to listen for patterns and new connections. In cross-pollinating small group conversations around an open question, new connections are generated and new ideas pop up more frequently.”

The above quote captures a significant shift in how ideas and stories are used that we are exploring with sports organisations. Rather than a central body gathering “insight” and making decisions from on high, people “on the ground” who have stories to share are also involved in the subsequent deliberation, sensemaking and strategic decisions. Further, on-going and open invitations to “join the conversation” largely replace traditional consultations and surveys.

It’s often messy and uncertain work, requiring of formal leaders not just a different way of “doing”, but perhaps more so a different way of “being”. A frequent pondering is whether the demanding nature of working in this way will limit adoption…given heroic leadership is the easier and more orthodox option.

Therefore, how might we find ways to encourage more people to examine the history and assumptions underlying this leadership orthodoxy? And could that open up the possibility of an even more significant shift, from focusing on leadership to fellowship?