Listening to Your Community: The Legacy of Great Leaders

January 11, 2016

by Carolyn Sawyer

photo - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Good listening skills are a common trait found among great leaders.

We have a rich legacy of leaders who traveled great distances to hear the voices of the voiceless. We think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. traveling to Memphis more than 40 years ago to meet and listen to the concerns of sanitation workers. Think of Gandhi or Mother Teresa moving among the masses in India – not to preach, but to listen and help.

These days, our leaders have access to a wealth of communication tools that allow them to receive and send emails, texts and tweets. But are these leaders really listening?

Voice can only come after really listening to the concerns of the residents, then taking action. As a Communications Strategist, I have spent nearly four decades studying and analyzing how people say things. The process involves listening to the tone, studying the content and context of the message, and examining the body language as someone delivers the message. Yet, after all these years, the most critical component of the communications process still involves listening to both the verbal and non-verbal cues we receive each day.

Listening allows you to get the real story.

As a young reporter right out of college, I will never forget attempting to cover a tornado that hit the South Carolina region in 1983. When I arrived at the small hospital in Fairfield County, the residents speaking in strong Southern drawls told me the worst damage had occurred "in a small town." Being a newcomer who was raised in a big city, to me this entire area was a small town. In fact, a community nearby was actually called Small Town. It was this tiny enclave where the stormed claimed its worst fatalities. I missed that story completely because I did not really listen or clarify what I had heard. It was my learning legacy as a journalist. I continue to carry that lesson each day as a business leader as I analyze data, review plans, ask questions, and listen to many sides as possible before making any decisions.

Great leaders seek voices, yes – but the really good ones lean in and listen before taking any action.

A few years ago in Washington, D.C., our team met with a rising star. His actual title was an Agency Administrator. What I will never forget is how he leaned in at that first meeting to really listen to our proposal for bringing greater efficiencies to the federal government. We later learned that, like most officials in the Obama administration, he, too, carries multiple Blackberry devices. But for the length of our two presentations, he listened intently with no phone in sight. A few weeks later, the same Agency Administrator participated on an Environmental Justice panel. I observed how he listened to the panelist speaking before him and even focused on the non-verbal feedback of the audience before standing to speak at the podium. He skillfully acknowledged the earlier remarks of his fellow panelists and even referenced a meeting late last year at this office with the disgruntled environmental activist on the panel. Before he could finish his remarks, the audience was clamoring for his telephone number to contact him directly. They sensed a leader who was willing to listen and maybe even do something.

For the record, this did not happen with any other presenters over the two day conference. In fact, one of the biggest laughs came during the remarks of a Native American dressed woman who travelled from Alaska. She told the audience she couldn't wait to get back and tell her tribal ancestors there was no need to feel bad, that the folks in Washington don't just ignore the Native Americans; they don't listen to a lot of other people with environmental concerns either. Two final footnotes worth sharing: that leader with the great listening skills reached out later the same day to a couple of people in attendance to ask and listen to different perceptions of how the exchange of ideals went during the conference. He then immediately assigned the issue raised by the angry activist to a senior staffer for another review.

Great leaders do not only listen to other leaders, but to all those around them with equal measure.

The author of the book Good to Great, Jim Collins, once spoke during the annual meeting of the Women President's Organization, which gathers hundreds of women running multimillion dollar businesses. Drawing from his latest book, Great by Choice, he recanted the story of two North Pole explorers. Collins told how these two explorers first analyzed where they were going, mapped out plans to determine the best method for getting there, and debated between using new technology to pull the sleighs or using horses. One explorer decided to take an additional step and speak with the locals. He wanted to know what they thought. The Eskimos quickly shot back, "don't use horses." Why not? Well, they were familiar with the cold conditions and intense terrain. The Eskimos understood that if the horses started to sweat, they'd freeze, die, and leave the exploration team stranded. "Use dogs," they said. Dogs do not sweat. Dogs would not freeze. This story spoke volumes about listening to the voices of others – the locals, the folks who don't always look like you, socialize with you, or live next door to you.

As city leaders, you must "lean in" and listen with open minds and hearts. If you do not, are you truly able to give voice to the community you represent?

Carolyn Sawyer is the founder, president, and chief strategist of the Tom Sawyer Company. She was named broadcaster of the year in 2011 and has won numerous awards, including an Emmy, for her communication and presentation skills.