As I mentioned in my earlier introductory post about Servant Leadership, I've been thinking about leadership and what it takes to lead in the 21st century for quite a while. Robert K. Greenleaf's insights into servant leadership are very powerful, and Larry C. Spears' list of the ten characteristics of servant leadership in his on-line article "On Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders" is a worthy starting point for conversation.

The first characteristic is Listening: "Leaders have traditionally been valued for their communication and decisionmaking skills. Although these are also important skills for the servant-leader, they need to be reinforced by a deep commitment to listening intently to others. The servant-leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps to clarify that will. He or she listens receptively to what is being said and unsaid. Listening also encompasses getting in touch with one's own inner voice. Listening, coupled with periods of reflection, are essential to the growth and well-being of the servant-leader."

If you think about your own historical view of leadership, would listening be one of the primary characteristics of the leaders that you've encountered?

Interestingly, during the Leadership Summit this week, I listened to Colin Powell espouse similar ideas under his principle, "Trust People in the Trenches."

There's a lot to listening. It's difficult work. It forces you to consider your own perspective and how others may differ from it. It stretches your concepts of "fact" and "opinion." And it introduces you to ideas and approaches that may stretch you our of your comfort zone.

That said, the results of leadership that embraces persistent listening are multiplied as a result. Team members who know they are heard respond much better to the needs of the team than those who wonder. And those who know that they aren't heard seldom stick around to see anything through to the end.

I remember walking into a board room to discuss options for a company on a rapid trajectory some years ago. We had all been studying the various options for next steps, discussing them in the hallways, meetings, offices, and during our frequent business trips. We had some exciting ideas and were eager to share them and get buy-in.

And then the CEO entered the room.

It didn't take long for us to realize that he had already decided. All of our thinking and effort was irrelevant. It was a waste.

As you might expect, it didn't take long for that leadership team to effectively disperse to other organizations. The company didn't last, either. It was unfortunate, because it had a great future and could have served millions of people. But, it never got the chance.

I remember another time and another CEO. One of his mantras was, "If I have all the ideas, we're in big trouble!" And he meant it. He listened. We all did. As a result we did amazing things. I still do work for him.

What about you as a leader? How do you make sure you're listening? What are your methods for drawing out your staff and listening closely?

Think about that...