What Can I Learn from Listening to Others
There are only so many ways to peel an apple. But when it comes to harvesting leadership wisdom—the apples that fall from the tree of knowledge—listening to stories is a great approach, both informative and entertaining. Stories can help us see beyond our preconceived notions of what is, and how (or even whether) to change our life. How to get beyond our preconceptions and past our short-sighted views are two of the biggest problems facing us humans. After all, we do have our vain brain to contend with. (See A Mind of Its Own, by Cordelia Fine.) Our vain brains are very defensive about ourselves, but perhaps less defensive about other people. And our brains also love gossip and beautiful stories. Stories contain relationship knowledge that connects us with other people, and useful information that may slide by those defensive mechanisms. You know those mechanisms, they whisper, “You are fine the way you are, no need to change.” Or, on a particularly dark day, “It’s useless to think you can do better. So don’t even bother”.
There are many other good reasons to listen to the stories that leaders tell us about themselves. First, they help us recognize what kinds of interactions have enabled great leaders to grow and develop. Listening to those who are a bit more willing to be responsible, who love problem solving, and who may for the first time be giving us their understanding of how their leadership skills developed in relationships, is fascinating.
Second, listening carefully to leaders’ stories may trigger a memory that helps you recall something similar, or radically different, about your own experiences on the road to becoming a leader. The meaning-filled behavior revealed in others’ stories may awaken a memory that will reaffirm your determination to build your leadership strength.
A third and more pragmatic reason to listen carefully to the stories of leaders is that it takes less time to learn from someone else than it does to learn from our own trial-and-error experiences.
Finally, discovering patterns by listening to other people’s stories can enable you to remove your relationship blinders and see the leadership process in action. Understanding patterns can also enhance your ability to sort out the clues pointing to exactly what kinds of leaders you are working for (or voting for). Seeing without the blinders will help you understand others, which is a basic, very necessary skill in a world focused on building intellectual capital.
Where Do I Stand?
Two provocative questions that you as a leader—indeed, any leader—can answer are these: “Who am I?” and “Who are you?” Usually, a leader first defines what he or she stands for, and what he or she is willing to do and not willing to do. Then, motivated leaders seek to discover the nature of the emotional/relationship systems in which they are living and working. A leader who spends time alone to reflect on the forces at play in these systems, and thereby also answers the question, “Who are you?” will be in a better position to carry out any leadership plan.
One of the world’s greatest storytellers, William Shakespeare, captured the essence of relationship dilemmas when he had Hamlet say, “To be, or not to be.” Shakespeare also noted the ongoing confusion that humans experience when thinking about their values: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
A great observer of the human condition, Shakespeare knew that there are all sorts of forces that leaders must contend with. One relates to how we manage our selves with others, and another involves how we understand the consequences of our thinking.
Written in 1601 or 1602, Hamlet takes us into the tragedy of Hamlet losing his self. The play makes the point that it is difficult to remain a separate self and think clearly in the face of pressure from those we love or even the ghost of someone we love. Many say that it is a brilliant depiction of a hero’s struggle with two opposing forces: moral integrity (sought after by anyone working to become a stronger, more separate self) and the need to avenge a murder (experienced when the self is lost as a consequence of absorbing the feelings, needs and wants of the other as though they were one’s own). Through this play, Shakespeare symbolically chides us to evaluate our weaknesses, our blindness, and the possible choices before us. A psychologically profound writer, he shows us how valuable stories can be in teaching us about our vulnerabilities.
When you read the stories of the 10 leaders interviewed for this book, you will also see how people can acquire strength from their important relationship systems. This is my focus. It’s a different take and far less dramatic, but people in their everyday lives do forge values through participating in and thinking about relationships. These stories reveal that clear process, how relationships shape our lives. They will also show you the forces that surround us as we decide to lead, or not to lead.
Great leaders struggle, sometimes daily, to find the energy and courage to look into their deeper selves, to be well defined about their beliefs, and then to communicate where they are leading us and why. Taking this high road to being a stronger self can require bucking established trends and patterns, and may very well upset those who are close to you. (But take heart: If the struggle becomes too great, you can always retreat, at least for a time, and just go along with others who may, or may not, know better.) High road or low, it can be fun to discover and use your unique talents to be. And as you build your leadership skills—learning from others, learning from your relationships, learning from your stories, and learning from mistakes—you will also be learning how to enable others in your social and business systems to grow and solve problems.
Evaluating Choices: Risks and Rewards
As you read these 10 stories, you’ll see that learning occurs at multiple levels and in several directions: Go forward and discover new things, or stand still and repeat behavior patterns from the past. No direction is without cost. Even comfortable, old behavior has a cost. The choice is to expend energy by adapting to changing conditions, or to conserve energy by staying on the old path—and perhaps risk having the future pass you by. Both choices can be valid.
That being said, there is nothing is wrong with being better informed before choosing your path—and knowing how systems operate is an integral part of being better informed. With knowledge, you can indeed be free to choose knowingly. Otherwise, in our worst-case scenario, you may find yourself assigned a role by the forces within the system and be required to fit into the role of victim or villain, whether you like it or not.
The forces that leaders contend with (or use to their advantage) regulate family and social groups and are usually outside of their awareness, much like our heartbeats. However, by carefully reading/listening to these leaders’ stories, you will gain a deeper knowledge of the natural though often hidden forces that affect you, your relationships, and your leadership goals. You can call this exercise in listening a way to increase your pattern recognition skills.
One little problem, however: Listening to people is not necessarily an inborn skill. Much gets in the way of clear understanding. Our own hopes and expectations can cloud the picture. Or, the person we are listening to or whose stories we are reading may be painting a positive, though false, picture of self for any number of reasons: a need to survive, an inability to see the facts, or the deeper need to win at all costs. (Deception, as we know, is not a problem for certain kinds of ruthless leaders.)
Given the limitations of human listening, a verifiable tool to measure people’s true feelings, or functioning, would be a boon. A reality-oriented, fact-based thermometer, for example, might show that an individual is operating on an emotional (hot) basis that is not well connected to reality/facts (cool). If we could use a fact-based thermometer, we’d see that this leader is running a 103-degree temperature. However, since we don’t have such a handy tool, we’ll have to depend on our own intelligence. Listening to these leaders’ stories will boost your listening skills and your ability to focus on the facts that reveal each leader’s strengths and level of functioning. This, in turn, will improve your own leadership skills.
Many leaders consider it crucial to know
(1) who in the group can stick with the facts and make the difficult calls, and
(2) who will use information in a subjective way to further his or her own agenda.
Again, listening carefully can help you make these distinctions.
People have great respect for leaders who willingly assume the mantel of responsibility. But history shows that passionate, charismatic leaders often fool us, especially when times are chaotic. During calmer times, we social creatures are also attracted to and fooled by people who have status within the group, and tend not question their authority. Again, careful listening can help you avoid the pitfall of trusting a pretend leader.
People who are not really willing to assume responsibility often accept leadership positions anyway. Why? Because leaders in any group reap many gains—status, money, and even immune system perks. This means any group is susceptible to acquiring a horrid leader, even the Boy Scouts.
Horrid leaders are adept at tricking us into thinking they are what they are not. Highly motivated people can and do pull the wool over sheep’s eyes. But, once again, we are not sheep. There are a few good clues that can help us sort out the good to great leaders from the not-so-great, emotionally blind, horrid ones. On a very simple level, for example, it is easy to see those who are striding up and down your office hallways wearing emotional blinders. Behind the bluster, they don’t really know what they are doing, and when confronted they refuse to accept responsibility for mistakes.
As you listen to and analyze leaders’ stories, you can in a sense begin building a personal, fact-based thermometer. Such a thermometer will help you distinguish between emotion-filled stories and fact-based stories. Listening carefully will help you develop a broader way of understanding and sorting out the good leaders from the bad. And best of all, it will enable you to become the kind of leader you want to be.
The price of greatness is responsibility.
The Science of Stories
By reflecting on your own and others’ stories, you will start to build on the “knowledge of process”—that is, how one thing influences another to produce change. This will enhance your ability to respond well in different circumstances.
By saying yes to knowing and telling your own stories, you are acknowledging the extraordinary, flexible
nature of the human mind to comprehend and alter its own functioning.
By reflecting on what has been, you will be able to remove the relationship blinders and overcome negative
There is a developing literature on the science of understanding stories.
So far, its focus has been primarily in the area of predicting parenting styles—but is that such a leap from predicting leadership styles?
Could it be that good parenting might correlate well with good to great leaders?
I can see where this could be the case, especially in fields where intellectual freedom and/or mentoring is
essential for future leaders to functions well.
The leaders I interviewed fall into the category of those capable of a sustained willingness to assume responsibility.
This requires knowing who is responsible for what, as well as how to delegate responsibility realistically.
It is not just leading, but also preparing others to assume responsibility.
In this way, an organization is like a family, and a leader is like a good parent.
The survival of the family or the group is dependent on adjusting to the current realities and anticipating and preparing others for an unknown future.
A great leader seeks to assure the future success of others, not to maintain his or her place at the top of the
It’s important to note that these interviews were not structured.
They were two-way encounters, and certainly did not follow any “patient-therapist” mode.
The questions were designed to enable the interviewees to consider their broader systems without causing them to over-focus on any one area.
Some people over focus on my questions, some on my style of conversation after the questions, while others over focus on the person who is interviewed.
If you dear reader, can take something away that connects with your life, then the overfocus on part of the social jungle will not matter.