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Effective Leadership Through Listening

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Between sports, media, and business, I’ve gotten to spend my time around a lot of different types of leaders. Some of the earliest examples were coaches, and many of them fit the classic stereotype by yelling and screaming in our faces about what we should and shouldn’t do. I never liked that style of leadership. It’s a style that is based on one person having all the answers, and making sure everyone else hears what they have to say. The most effective leadership is through listening, not yelling.

None of us have all the answers! So when I experienced leaders who took a different approach, like the great coach Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings, I got to see just how powerful a leader who listens really is.

Listen to Your Teammates

As a leader on our team, I set an example by actively taking input from the people around me. I had the responsibility to call the plays in our offense, but that didn’t mean I was making every decision entirely on my own. I trusted my teammates and used their insights to make better decisions. 

When an offensive lineman said he could beat his man on the inside, but not the outside, I would listen.

When my wide receiver told me he could get open against a defender using a certain move, I would listen.

When my coaches advised me that the defense was tiring, I would listen.

I was the quarterback, and I made the final decision. I was the leader of the offense. But I was never alone. By listening, I knew far more and achieved far more than if I had tried to control everything myself. 

The process worked because I had trust in my teammates. They were experts in their fields and knew things I didn’t and couldn’t. But by listening, I got to take advantage of their expertise and use it to benefit the whole team. Being a great listener made me a better leader.

Listening in Business

When I retired from the NFL, I fully immersed myself in the business world. One of the great blessings of my life was connecting with perhaps the greatest businessperson of that era: Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart.

Mr. Sam (as we called him) and I became great friends, and I would ride along with him in the passenger seat of his pickup truck to visit Walmart stores and attend store openings. I learned so much from our conversations, and from watching the way he did business.

I’ll never forget it, because it wasn’t what you might expect from somebody who was possibly the richest man in the world at the time. He would go into a store and just walk up and down the aisles. He would talk to the associates he passed by, addressing them by name and asking them questions about what was happening in the store lately.

  • What’s been selling?
  • What’s not selling?
  • What have you noticed?

He wasn’t there to boss them around; he wanted to stop and have conversations and listen. The associates in the stores were on the front lines; they had a better perspective on what customers were thinking and doing than anyone else! The information they had would help him to make better decisions to benefit the entire company, with hundreds of thousands of employees.

The Benefits of a Listening Leader

These are just a couple of examples of how listening can impact leadership, whether you’re in the world of athletics or the world of business. But when you break it down, listening brings a lot of important benefits to a leader.

Here are a few of the most important!

Building Trust

When you listen as a leader, you build strong relationships with your teammates. That’s because listening is a way to show someone that you value and respect them. When you value and respect someone, it builds trust. That trust is the foundation for a relationship.

Having those relationships in place gives you a greater ability as a leader to influence people, because they are bought into you and what you have to say. Building trust gives you the credibility where people will listen and consider what you say, even if it’s difficult to take. 

Understanding Needs

Listening helps you to better understand the needs of not only the business at large, but of each person in the organization. Going back to the example of a football team, the team as a whole has a more complete picture of what we need than I did as a single individual. The same way, a group of people from different parts of the business, who see things from different perspectives, will help you form a more complete picture of what your company needs. If you’re only focusing on one area, or only talking to people from one department, you’re missing a lot of what’s going on. 

At the same time, good listening skills help leaders understand the needs of their employees. What are their concerns? What are their hopes? The more you understand, the more you’ll be able to make decisions that motivate and inspire your team and get them to buy into your larger vision.

Building a Culture

I’m a big believer in culture. I think of the famous quote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s saying a lot, because strategy is important; I’m also a big believer in having a plan! But a winning culture with the right people empowered to act in the right way is incredibly powerful.

Listening goes a long way toward building that culture. First, the leader is setting a positive example by encouraging open communication. Leaders aren’t talking at their team; they are talking with and listening to them. It sets the tone for everyone else in the company to listen respectfully and communicate honestly. People feel more valued, they engage more with the company, and morale rises. It’s a winning situation for everyone!

Be an Open Door Leader

As your company grows, resist the temptation to close yourself off. Keep your door open – and I mean not just the literal door to your office, but also your openness to engaging with other people and listening and learning.

I think we’re all a little more willing to listen when we’re on the way up. We’re hungry for any possible edge and any small piece of information that might help us climb to the next step. Don’t make the mistake of getting away from that approach just because you reach a level of success.

None of us have all the answers – even the people who are at the very top. From my football days all the way to the present, any time I started to think that I had it all figured out – that was when something would happen to knock me down a peg and remind me of the truth. 

Every leader can benefit from listening more to other people. Whether you’re just thinking about your very first business, or in the middle of running your 20th, there’s always more to learn.

Published: April 23, 2024
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Fran Tarkenton

Fran Tarkenton is an entrepreneur and NFL Hall of Famer, and the founder of Tarkenton Companies. Successfully starting and running more than 20 companies spanning a wide range of industries, Fran is a passionate advocate for small business owners and entrepreneurs. The product of all of Fran’s experiences is Tarkenton, which has partnered with major enterprises for more than two decades, bringing a combination of strategic thinking, operational excellence, and fast-paced action to complex business problems. Fran is the driving force between GoSmallBiz.com, Tarkenton Financial, and Tarkenton Private Capital.

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