Joseph Scordato is a Senior Project Engineer and Six Sigma Master Pilot at Taylor Company, a division of Carrier Commercial Refrigeration, Inc in Rockton, IL. He and his wife, Maureen, have 5 children. Their family is active at St. Peter Church and School in South Beloit, IL. Both Joseph and his wife are Secular Franciscans and enjoy serving engaged couples in marriage preparation at Bishop Lane Retreat House. Joseph completed his MBA studies through Cardinal Stritch University's College of Business in December 2007. He is currently an adjunct instructor for his alma mater. This article is based on a paper he did for one of his MBA classes.
The role of humility in fostering effective listening and leadership skills
By Joseph J. Scordato
The act of listening fundamentally requires recognition that communication with another has value to the listener. Listening supposes that there may be something deficient in the listener’s world that could be enhanced through the understanding of a particular message or an active relationship with the speaker. Listening develops the bond of relationship by communicating the listener’s need for the speaker.
Essentially, listening requires humility. It succeeds in proportion to the degree of humility exercised and falters whenever humility lessens. Listening is the basis for any fruitful social interaction.
Leadership, a social endeavor, likewise requires effective listening. The effective leader must therefore be humble.
The communication process is complex. It involves verbal and non-verbal messages. Noise factors and various process, personal, and semantic barriers disrupt the ability to effectively communicate (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2007, p. 441-444). These disruptions result from the uniqueness of the participating individuals and the communication environment. Effective listening “requires effort and motivation” (p. 450) in order to overcome these barriers.
There is no motivation when one’s attitude towards a speaker or the perceived content of the message is arrogant, self-preoccupied, or fearful (Bach & Baker, 2001, p. 81). In such cases, it may be painful for the listener to change without personal healing (Kegan & Lahey, 2001, p.84-92). Humility, however, dismisses personal hang-ups and perceived threats in recognition of one’s true need. The recognition of need motivates the listener to overcome even the most painful and excessive of physical barriers.
Consider the active listening engaged by true lovers in the harshest of circumstances. Humility not only motivates the listener, but also allows for fuller attentiveness.
The humble listener is not only open to other individuals and their messages, but also various communication media. One who listens humbly has multiple antennae, ponders various meanings of the message, and actively engages in feedback and thought experiments to understand the message. Humility, in recognizing one’s own need, values the speaker as well as the listening process. The greater one’s humility, the greater is one’s ability and desire to listen.
Leadership cannot be effective without excellent listening skills. A leader must have the means to know that his or her leadership is successful and make adjustments or provisions as required. The ability to lead is contingent upon one’s ability to listen and the ability to inspire listening in others.
Yet, in common perception, humility is not a virtue associated with great leadership. Perhaps this is because great leaders inspire great humility in their followers. Such humility in followers inspires effective listening. However, it is the leader and not the renegade who recognizes the need for followers in order to accomplish one’s objective.
One principle of the Dale Carnegie leadership training is: “Remain humble. See things from the other person’s point of view. A good leader understands the role of everyone on a team and appreciates them for the contributions they make” (Crom, 1998, p. TL6). Humility allows the leader to perform his task better because it allows him to value and listen to those he is leading.
Robert Greenleaf’s concept of Servant-leadership echoes this dynamic (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2007, p. 534-535). Without humility, the leader would not be able to listen. The prideful leader leads blindly. He or she lacks information for meaningful control.
Effective leadership relies upon the ability to listen and inspire listening. The listening process is complex and subject to disruption. The practice of humility overcomes the multiple barriers to successful listening. It begins by constant recognition of the value of one’s employees and the exercise of the characteristics of the Servant-Leader (see chart).
Humility motivates a leader’s desire to listen and clears personal bias against individuals or concepts. Humility allows for both imaginative and realistic action — because without it an organization can only grow as large as the leader’s head.
Characteristics of the Servant-Leader (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2007, p. 535)
Bach, L., & Baker, T. (2001). Come and See. Lindsborg, KS: Barbo-Carlson Enterprises.
Crom, M. (1998). The Leader as Servant. (Improving Leadership Skills) [Electronic version]. Training, 35(7), p. TL6.
Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2001, November). The real reason people won't change. Harvard Business Review, 79(10), 84-92.
Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2007). Organizational Behavior (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.
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