Leading by Listening

By L Michaels

Leading out of respect for others is better than desire for power over them.

Leadership is not what I thought it was. Realistically, I should not be surprised. Few things ever turn out how we originally envision them. Leadership is a bit tricky, though, especially in a cultural context where the loudest voices tend to be the ones with all the power. If I’m honest, I thought that was what leadership was about—power. It’s not.

In what now feels like a former life, I was a business management major. I remember being enthralled with the idea that there are different kinds of power, and the kind that comes with a title is generally referred to as “legitimate” power. I can remember thinking to myself that this was the kind of power I needed, because as an Enneagram 1, INFJ, melancholy, choleric, empath, my voice is never going to be the loudest. I will not compete against anyone else for a platform. I really like to win, but I recognize that if the rules of the game require me to be someone I’m not, I can’t. With this in mind, I had to find another way. I thought, perhaps, the way was one of captive audiences. There was something appealing to the idea that given legitimate power, others would have to listen. They would have to follow. However, there are major problems with this theory.

First, possessing a title is not synonymous with having the skills and experience to lead. I’d like to believe that people are chosen, hired, elected, etc. because of their abilities, but this simply is not always (or maybe even often) the case. I’d like to believe that when we step into adulthood we leave behind the injustices of middle school student council nomination popularity contest caliber, but I have seen enough real life examples of the old “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” adage to admit this is not true. It’s a doubled-edged sword of sorts, because not only does this kind of ascent to leadership put unqualified (often immoral, unjust, or even apathetic—see: did your sixth grade student council representative actually do anything, or did he or she just want to get out of class from time to time) people in positions of power, but it also silences the voices of those who would do a better job.

I used to think the worst part of this was the former. Ascribing leadership to those who are inept or corrupt carries dangerous connotations, to be sure. But in more recent days, I have decided the far more tragic side of this equation is the latter, because silencing robs not only individuals but whole communities (and even wider reaching, all of humanity) of important insight and the kind of compassionate leadership that can only come through the empathy fostered by life lived on the margins rather than in the center of privilege that offers unchecked power based on surface qualifications such as a charismatic personality or an attractive smile.

Second is the realization that leadership is relational, so there are few, if any, good reasons to follow someone simply because a title suggests one should. This can be difficult to unpack, especially for those who have grown up in environments that encourage respect for hierarchal authority and high-ranking offices. The question too often becomes: it is right to respect those who are not respectable because of the positions they hold? I struggle to understand why the answer given to this question is quite frequently a resounding yes, but even more than that, I think it’s the wrong question. It puts the burden on those who are treated unfairly. How might things change if, instead, we asked; if leadership is relational, then shouldn’t respect be reciprocal?

I am not certain it is possible to lead without caring for the people who are following. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is not. Indisputably, one with legitimate power can make decisions and enforce them, but that can hardly be called leadership, even if people have to acquiesce. Real leadership requires followers who use their own agency to choose to follow. And so, as is so often the case for those who hope to make good decisions that lead to a better world, I began to ask what I might do to be a loved leader, as opposed to a legitimate one. What might I do to inspire others to follow as opposed to further stripping them of that choice in a mad dash to the top of some invisible ladder on which we are expected to step on fingers and kick people in the face instead of turning around to offer them a hand up?

The answer was hard to stomach, again, for myriad reasons. I have come to the realization that the most subversive way a person can lead is to listen to the narratives of those who do not possess “legitimate” power. This used to be a frustrating proposal to me, because I have often felt that merely listening is not enough. I still contend that this can be a problem, but my experience with listening to others has led me to believe that this is, exactly, what people ask for when presented with the opportunity to ask for what they want or need.

I thought leadership would look more practical. I’ve never been a fan of pragmatism, but, to be honest, I thought leadership would be more pragmatic. I have looked into the faces of people who are hungry, struggling, addicted, and marginalized because of their very identity, and I have wished that they would ask me to do something that has its roots in temporality or to give them something attached to a price tag, but these are rarely ever the requests of those who are looking for a leader. Instead, they want my time. They want to know that someone believes their stories and actually thinks their experiences matter. Genuine leaders can only lead by first being present to the realities that may or may not be their own.

Only after listening intently for the sake of understanding does it become appropriate for leaders to revisit the narratives for the sake of response, and the right response will never be one that further elevates the leader. There is a humility in leadership that requires those who lead to do so precisely for the sake of others. This is not about being the greatest advocate or the most admired. In fact, those who lead from such a position are often quite superficial when their work is examined. There is a certain degree of irony to this, and it can be exceptionally painful as those who lead poorly draw all of the attention to their enigmatic selves. I have no doubt that personalities such as these can secure a blind following, and history has proven this repeatedly, but the results are usually catastrophic. At its best, this kind of glory hoarding leadership diminishes the people and narratives that deserve a place at the problem solving tables. At its worst, these leaders take whole cultures and societies down roads that lead to assimilation, loss of identity, or even wide scale genocide. It may sound like a stretch until we consider the many times this has actually happened.

And so I think real leadership that respects the humanity of others and makes a positive difference in the world is, perhaps, a bit less sexy than people often hope. It is not denoted by popularity or paparazzi or polls. It might not even be identifiable by large scale movements or a call for change. Instead, it is sitting in the margins with one person, listening to their story, and then finding a way forward, together. It is doing this over and over again, even when no one else notices. It is cheering for everyone instead of competing for the spotlight. We lead by listening, and this makes an impact more like ripples in the water than like waves. It’s not flashy, but it endures.

L Michaels is a follower of Jesus, Ph.D. student and teaching fellow at Boston University, author, blogger, editor, and mom to five incredible human beings. She has a B.S.M. from Indiana Wesleyan University and an M.A. and M.Div. (both in theology/spiritual formation) from Northwest Nazarene University. L writes about theology, the sacraments, and ministry to the least of these at Flip Flops, Glitter, and Theology (.com). In her spare time, L likes to binge watch Netflix and Hulu and drink voluminous amounts of Peppermint Bark Mocha (preferably at local coffee shops or by the ocean).

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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