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Surfacing elephants and new ideas

4 min read


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I’ve known many leaders who talk too much. They can suck the life out of a room by commandeering it and shutting out other voices that need to be heard. Any wisdom those other voices have may be lost in the words that gush out of the leader’s mouth like Niagara Falls.

I’ve also known leaders who are quiet and want to speak up more. They may have quiet wisdom, but can’t get a word in amid the cacophony around them. So they may withhold their wisdom, much to the detriment of their organizations.

There is withheld wisdom in both scenarios, and it is a reality in many (most?) organizations that some leaders aren’t listening and others need to be heard. The net result is that organizations don’t get the inherent intelligence from their leaders. There is so much to be heard that isn’t, leaving our organizations full of untapped potential.

When loud leaders and quiet leaders learn to moderate their natural tendencies while remaining true to who they are, modeling and setting expectations that others will do the same, the organization can enjoy a collective wisdom that was kept dormant.

Can you imagine what might happen when that occurs? I can, and it’s a compelling vision of fully functional companies that actually listen and hear what’s being said. Creativity is no longer an issue. Collaboration rides on the coattails of this imagined company ripe with rich, deep listening and all voices being heard — with bottom-line results.

The funny thing is that the skills to be able to listen better and to be heard are learnable. However, they aren’t easy, making it easy to default to old habits of conversations where almost nobody is listening or heard.

Whether you are a loud leader or a quiet leader, what if:

You listened more: Let’s say you take the stance that you aren’t the keeper of all knowledge. You have learned that others just might have something important to say. Silence in conversations is your friend because it shows that people are thinking and allows dormant voices to come forth. You are listening to understand what others bring to a conversation instead of allowing your brain to chatter along, making judgments and assumptions or getting frustrated because you have something important to say but you can’t find your way into the conversation. What wisdom is appearing now that was lying dormant?

You are intentional about using your voice: You are as strategic about your words as you are about achieving organizational results. It takes hard work, but you know when to speak and when to listen and how to find your way into a conversation. This strategic use of your voice is the most important leadership skill, foundational to your success and that of your organization. Many a leader has failed because he or she didn’t listen or didn’t speak up when necessary. You’ve noticed that your clarity and influence is magnifying within the organization. Heads turn to hear what you have to say. What impact are you making when you are more strategic about speaking?

Listening and being heard are modeled, learned, encouraged and required: You’ve learned to model deep listening and you speak up only when it’s essential. You make it clear that you expect others in your organization to also learn to listen and speak up with intention; you’ve encouraged and held employees responsible for doing so, saving your company big money now that much of the other soft skills training and coaching won’t be necessary. What do you notice about the growth in your organization, including bottom-line impacts?

We spend billions on training employees in our organizations to work together, to “be creative” and to influence and lead others when better listening and strategically speaking up might solve a lot of the issues. When we listen better and find our voice allowing us to be heard, deep conversations begin to happen, surfacing elephants and new ideas. Imagine the possibilities.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.