Money Matters

Leaders are listeners

Money Matters
By Sirajuddin Aziz
Mon, 07, 22

Perhaps, every single reader of this page would have in the second or third standard of school, written an essay on the proverb, ‘speech is silver, but silence is gold’. I wrote too, as part of an essay competition in the third standard. I won a prize. I cannot recall, what I wrote. But, I am certain that I wrote it well maybe because, whilst writing I must have been in the speech mode -- hence wrote about the importance of silence, while making an internal speech. That’s human nature, I believe. The inherent human propensity is to speak and not to remain silent. Speech requires more effort; silence doesn’t.

Leaders are listeners

Perhaps, every single reader of this page would have in the second or third standard of school, written an essay on the proverb, ‘speech is silver, but silence is gold’. I wrote too, as part of an essay competition in the third standard. I won a prize. I cannot recall, what I wrote. But, I am certain that I wrote it well maybe because, whilst writing I must have been in the speech mode -- hence wrote about the importance of silence, while making an internal speech. That’s human nature, I believe. The inherent human propensity is to speak and not to remain silent. Speech requires more effort; silence doesn’t.

At a recent book launch, Javed Jabbar, The Master Communicator using the medium of humour, highlighted this aspect of our ever readiness to speak. He remarked, I have now learned by experience, when people walk up to me and ask my opinion on political situation or any other subject, it is actually a demand by them to listen to their views … before I end, even my first sentences, they react with no , Javaid Saab this is not the case, but … and this ‘but’ is the beginning of listening to their ‘opinion’. A torture that I am certain, being a gentleman he endures with patience and grace. This is so true. In the same way let me cite, that if you ever attend or watch a Mushaira (poetry recitals) keep an eye on the poets -- they just don’t listen to other poets -- while waiting for their turn to recite their poetry, they are mostly fidgeting, demonstrating disinterestedness, this is all because listening is a difficult thing to do.

Leadership demands ability to demonstrate the paradox of choice between speech and silence, both of which are crucial for a leader. An ancient writer said the following: ‘no one can safely appear in public unless he himself feels that he would willingly remain in retirement. No one can safely speak who would rather be not silent.’

Continual eloquence is tedious (Pascal). In the corporate world too, we have ‘public speakers’ who attend meetings including board meetings. Some members love their voice. It has to remain on an active mode, lest the meeting becomes an act of corporate fatigue. Said a colleague to me once, just because I listen with rapt attention, all participants in a meeting think, I am a great conversationalist!

A manager/leader distinguishes when exercising the choice to be recognised as, “how well, Cicero spoke”. Or when Demosthenes, said “let’s march”. In speaking leaders must create and spur action. An excessive use of the tongue in a meeting renders deafness to the speaker. Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.

A CEO, once he starts the meeting with an expression of his views on the agenda or any of its items, he/she essentially gives a shut-up call to other participants -- because his opinion is then a case, which is up for polls! The sycophants will rally behind him and the few independent thinkers will normally get pulverised with intimidation of a future negative reaction or fallout from the CEO. A meeting in the corporate environment or otherwise too, is held to seek free, fair and independent opinions, on business issues. The chairperson, hence, must reign his/her tendency to speak first. He must firstly listen; must say the least and listen the most. Once opinions across the board have been articulated, it is then the CEO’s ability to manoeuvre the debate that will lead to a conclusion, which will receive support and acclaim from all, because the view then is collective and renders it as our decision; not a decision that is bulldozed or thrust down the throat by the CEO.

Anonymously said, the beginning of wisdom is silence. The second step is listening. Listening is done through mind, not by the ears alone. Those who know the art of listening end up profiting even from what is said badly and inappropriately.

In the corporate sector, most of us are trained, formally and by the experience of attendance, on how to conduct a meeting -- the ability to balance between the temptation to speak and the need and demand to remain silent. However, in the domain of politics and politicians, I believe that each meeting is a contrast of extremes; it may appear as a public meeting at Liberty Chowk (Lahore) or a meeting at the Kremlin (in former USSR) where all politburo members would remain silent, and only the leader (Secretary General of the communist party) would speak. As a student I used to keenly watch the footage of such meetings. This silent submission is not to be confused with the noble attribute of ‘silence’; this was quelling and stifling of opinion. Within the corporate sector, this cannot be done on a sustained basis. Corporate rebellion is also a reality of current management dynamics. Hence, the meetings are more participative.

People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening … ‘fools, said I’ (Paul Simon). The great writer Thomas Carlyle, said, “under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is as deep as eternity; speech is as shallow as Time.”

Listening is an act of the leader that conveys, his/her calm and collectedness. A leader must speak with a singular purpose to share and thence to receive unqualified support for a desired objective. An able leader by the virtue of being a good listener, will possess the ability to amend and alter his opinion, based on the views of others.

Leaders, who consider themselves good communicators, ought to be good listeners too. Listening leadership is a prerequisite to opening up to new ideas of creativity and innovation. Such leaders have in them an obvious sense of empathy. Listening to sane counsel and advice can save the leader from taking a perilous path. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin and several autocratic leaders perished because of their obstinate attitude of refusing to ‘listen’. Against this we have from the world of politics, leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela who would patiently listen to various points of view and then take a decision with resolute conviction.

Leaders must be wary of those sycophants who would use the tool of listening as a form of flattery. I have heard and laughed in meetings, when someone dares to remark to the chair, ‘could you repeat those golden words for me again, sir’; and to this charm are susceptible all types of leaders across the business world, politics and religion etc. Leaders must look at listening to as their first priority. Great leaders are invariably good listeners.


The writer is senior banker and freelance columnist