On Listening as Leadership (and why it matters for entrepreneurs)

Friday night, my old iPhone died a sloppy and long overdue death. It was a blessing in disguise, as it prompted an unscheduled phone-free writing and brainstorming weekend. I finished two novels I’d been re-reading, had a record-powered dance party, wrote a ton, and on Sunday, I picked up Hillary Clinton’s book on her experiences in 2016, What Happened, at the local Goodwill.

It got me thinking about a communications analyst I heard explain one of the societal issues that contributed to her defeat (aside from the more obvious, ahem, anomalies).

He said, the American election system was created by men, for men—and for male communication & leadership styles. It’s not about being the best leader, it’s about being the loudest.

Secretary Clinton’s campaign style, on the other hand, centers around the opposite: she listens. Several leadership experts have written about her style since her first 1999 Listening Tour, and 'listening' is not just a campaign style: it's a revolutionary kind of leadership.

The most common leadership style, transactional, is exactly what you’d expect from an old-school sales manager: an exchange. Rewards for compliance, punishment for failures. Think bonuses, promotions, demotions, etc. Academics have recognized this as the typical male model of leadership in organizations since at least the 90s.

It’s effective, sure.

But if you’re an entrepreneur, chances are you’ve felt the stifling lack of creativity in many jobs & organizations… and bailed from it. The zero-sum exchange game has a way of snuffing out new ideas, growth, and transformation—especially when those ideas come from an “atypical” perspective (hi, women and minorities everywhere).

It’s no surprise, then, that so many of us are working & searching for a different path. A path that values transformation, ideas, and creativity. A path that lets us take the reins back and breathe in the life-giving air of creative expression.

But as an entrepreneur, even working totally solo, you still need to /lead/ to be effective. You’re selling ideas, influence, and change. So what’s the alternative to bald-white-man leadership? (yeah, I went there)

Enter the transformational leader.

The transformational leader is an agent of change who can influence the outlook and actions of her audience.

Rather than forcing her idea of success on followers, she develops a strong sense of vision to clarify and communicate objectives to motivate, encourage commitment, and inspire action.

In a presidential candidate, these objectives are those of the country. In a CEO, it's the organization. For the rest of us? Organization = community.

To truly lead people to change & grow with you, you must clarify and communicate your vision, and build a relationship with your community around creating that vision for yourself, your audience, and the world.

And of all the skills you need to build relationships, effective listening is the most important, for Hillary Clinton and for every relationship coach, travel advisor, and copywriter on the web.

A listening-first approach offers its own rewards, even for solopreneurs on the intarwebs. Imagine… 

  • Earning that “know, like, trust” factor faster than ever… even as a stranger on the internet.

  • Inspiring your audience to take action, instead of scaring them off by asking for the wrong sale at the wrong time.

  • Creating client experiences that meet & exceed expectations, every time (so you always get great reviews & client love).

  • Having your words shared and loved by the /right/ people (the ones you really care about).

That’s the power of listening. Because if you’re listening, your work is part of a conversation, not a shouting match.