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The #1 superpower every leader needs

You can’t lead if you can’t listen.
Close-up of a person's ear and partial profile of their face against a black and blue background, embodying the quiet confidence of a leader.
DTS / Daniel Farò / Big Think / Vincent Romero
Key Takeaways
  • Leaders must make tremendous sacrifices and balance conflicting goals if they are to be successful.
  • After interviewing hundreds of CEOs, Adam Bryant has found listening to be the leader’s most valuable superpower.
  • Bryant shares two lynchpin strategies to help leaders become better listeners.
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Everybody wants to rule the world — or at least lead their corner of it — and the reasons are obvious enough. When you’re in charge, you get power and status. People look to you for guidance, and you make the decisions. Did we mention the money? Because the pay is definitely better at the top.

But as Adam Bryant, author and the senior managing director of the ExCo Group, is quick to point out, that image of leadership only represents the highlight reel. It’s far from the whole picture.

“A lot of people say, ‘I want that promotion, I want to be a leader. All those jobs look great.’ Well, they’re not great,” Bryant tells Big Think+. “Yes, they come with rewards, but they also come with a tremendous amount of sacrifice and trade-offs in your life. It takes a certain constitution, a certain drive, to want to do those jobs.”

That’s not all because leadership is a job packed with paradoxes. You must be authentic and compassionate with your people while being accountable to the bottom line. You must maintain a sense of urgency while being patient. You must be flexible and inclusive while standing firm in your values. 

Balancing these opposing demands isn’t for everyone, and precious few leaders train on the skills they’ll need to succeed before they find themselves headlining the high-wire act. That leaves many leaders in a precarious position, desperately trying to find their balance as they go. 

There is good news though. As a writer, Bryant has interviewed more than 1,000 CEOs and business leaders. In those conversations, he discovered what he calls the “superpower of leadership.” And that superpower is listening.

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The more you listen

Listening is a leadership superpower because it helps us shine a light on our blind spots. There’s always some information we aren’t privy to, a perspective we can’t see, or something we’re just plain wrong about. In fact, leaders may be especially prone to blind spots, courtesy of another one of those paradoxes. 

As Bryant explains, “[Leaders] have access to more lines of communication in the organization than anybody else. The contradiction is that all of those lines of communication are much more compromised.”

The reason for such compromised communication is simple: No one wants to bring bad news to the boss. Even if you haven’t installed your bad-news trapdoor yet, team members may still fear reprisal or worry that signaling a problem will increase their workload. 

Whatever the case, the resulting silence means you won’t be aware of problems until they reach critical mass. Ill-equipped to handle those problems, you’ll need to scramble to gather the information necessary to remedy them.

Establishing healthy communication norms helps solve this problem. As a leader, listening ensures you get the information you need to learn and act accordingly. You gain a richer understanding of the environment, your people, and the problems you face (or may one day face).

At the same time, you build the kind of culture where people feel heard and valued. When people know their perspectives will be welcomed — rather than ignored or punished — they will be more open to sharing. This in turn creates the organizational connections that open the lines of communication upward toward leadership.

That doesn’t mean you have to take everyone’s advice or follow every plan presented to you. Sometimes, the best answer is no, and that’s okay. As Bryant notes, “If people feel like they’re listened to, they’re going to feel respected, and even if you make a different call than what they’re suggesting, they’re much more likely to follow you.”

The more you hear

Sounds simple enough, but being a good listener asks more of you than maintaining an open-door policy and regular office hours — though definitely keep those up. During his interview, Bryant shares two strategies to help any leader improve their listening skills.

The first goes by the acronym WAIT, which is short for the question, Why am I talking? The basic principle is that if you’re talking, you’re not listening; and if you’re not listening, you’re not learning.

WAIT doesn’t demand complete silence. Rather, it asks you to be mindful of why you are talking. Are you talking to tell others how things are or because you want to wrap things up quickly? Or are you asking a question that invites someone to share? The former is a communication killer; the latter facilitates conversation by expressing your interest in listening.

The second strategy is what Bryant calls the “leadership user manual.” You start by striking up a conversation with a team member to ask them about their style, pet peeves, and work preferences. Is their best focus time in the morning or afternoon? What’s a part of the job that drives them crazy? Do they prefer brainstorming over email or in a room? And so on.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. The goal is to develop a mutual understanding as colleagues and show the team member that your relationship won’t be just you handing down orders. You’ll listen to them and consider their needs. Over time, you both will have a mental “user manual” for how the other operates and how to work with each other effectively.

During his interview, Bryant recounts a story about a CEO who married these two strategies perfectly. Before a new member of her team gave his first presentation, she took him aside and told him that she would ask a lot of questions afterward. She wanted to make it clear that she wasn’t interrogating him or trying to put him on the spot. Instead, questions were her way of showing interest and learning from him.

Instead of assuming her intentions were obvious, this CEO was up-front and empathic. This not only puts that team member’s mind at ease. As a bonus, it also establishes a cultural norm for everyone in that room. She was there to learn and listen, and no one needed to worry about expressing themselves openly and honestly.

“It’s not about Myers-Briggs [personality tests] or colors or horoscopes about what kind of person you are. Having that conversation and going at that from a good place of wanting the teams to succeed can be transformative,” Bryant adds.

Balancing your leadership superpowers

None of this is to say that leaders should only listen quietly all of the time. They can’t afford to. Bryant believes that for leaders, there is no such thing as over-communicating.

“You sometimes need to say things like seven times, seven different ways before people hear it once,” Bryant warns, adding that you want to communicate until your people will know what you’ll say before you say it.

It’s another of those leadership paradoxes, but like all the others, there is a balance to be found. That being: In addition to discussing your thoughts and ideas, you should over-communicate your desire for your team members to be honest, open, and engaged with you. You’ll be there to listen is your word and your bond.

“As a leader, you need to make it very clear that you want the feedback,” Bryant says. “When people tell you things that are difficult to hear, you say, ‘Thank you.’”

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