There’s a common saying that human beings were given two ears (and two eyes), but only one mouth to show that they should listen (and look) at least twice as much as they speak. I think that for managers and leaders that ratio is far too low. Looking and listening should happen maybe ten or more times for every time you open your mouth to make some pronouncement or decision. Yet in our rushed, stressed, action-obsessed corporate cultures, it sometimes seems that leaders speak at least ten times as often as they listen. Is it any wonder that so much time and effort is wasted in mistakes and false starts?

A leader who is out of touch is a liability to everyone, including him or herself. A manager with a closed mind is like a ship sailing at full speed for the rocks. More mistakes and losses are caused by people who have closed minds and open mouths that by all kinds of incompetence. I think rather few managers and leaders today lack enough competence. Mostly they are well-trained and highly skilled in their specialist areas. Where many are grossly deficient is in being sufficiently open-minded and willing to listen. All their skill and experience goes to waste as a result.

Then there’s arrogance: being too proud and full of yourself to listen to anyone except a small clique of chosen associates (and sometimes not even to them). That trait is a certain killer. There are always people who will encourage you to tune out the rest of the world and listen only to them. The trouble is that they nearly always have a hidden agenda and a strong attachment to their own self-interest. A manager who surrounds him or herself with people like this is playing an extremely risky game. You may boost your ego still further (such sycophants are expert at polishing the boss’s ego), but the price you will pay is being cut off from reality and fed a constant diet of warped data that suits the interests of your minders.

Successful leaders understand that it is never anyone else’s responsibility to save them from becoming blinded by ignorance and surrounded by minders and toadies. That is their job alone, and they make it their highest priority. If the data reaching you is wrong, limited, out-of-date, or twisted and censored by others, any decisions you make will be as poor as the data they are based on.

How do successful leaders behave?

  • They seek out the information they need. They don’t rely on others to bring it to their attention.
  • The know that the more glib, polished, and authoritative the person speaking, the more closely he or she should be questioned. Confidence tricksters and sharp salespeople are very persuasive and articulate. The person who knows the truth may not be either, but is still the only one worth hearing.
  • They never judge the worth of a piece of information by the status of the person they get it from, only by its reliability and importance.
  • They know that laziness in seeking out and testing information opens the door to being manipulated by those who are devoted to self-interest and not to the truth.
  • They never make a final decision until they must. Until then, they keep their minds, ears, and eyes open and alert to possible changes that would require a different choice.
  • They value evidence above convenience.
  • They know judgment and emotions are poor bedfellows.
  • They are aware of their own biases and take care to allow for them in making a decision.
  • They may have strong opinions, but they hold to them very lightly. They never cling to any opinion when the evidence is pointing another way, and they drop it instantly if it proves unsound.
  • They use at least 80% of their time to look, listen, explore, analyze, reflect, and consider. Only then do they speak.

Look around you at all the people with their mouths constantly open, and their minds,eyes, and ears tightly shut to anything that doesn’t immediately support the opinions they are so eager to proclaim. That’s how many fools there are in the world. Sadly, many of them hold important positions of leadership too. Just don’t join them. They are headed for certain disaster.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership.

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