John C. Maxwell: A 1-Week Leadership Listening Challenge

UPDATED: July 12, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 10, 2014

In a TED Talk I viewed recently, economic development expert Ernesto Sirolli told the story of working to develop sustainable agriculture in Africa for six years during the 1970s. Sirolli said his first project seemed simple enough: Plant a garden and teach the local Zambians how to grow tomatoes and zucchini.

Initially they made great progress. Sirolli and his team were amazed by how easy it was to grow food in Africa. After months of hard work, the garden burst with tomatoes.

Then one evening close to harvest time, Sirolli watched helplessly as some 200 hippopotamuses marched out of the river and ate everything.

“We said to the Zambians, ‘My God, the hippos!’” Sirolli recounted, “and the Zambians said, ‘Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here.’
“‘Why didn’t you tell us?’
“‘You never asked.’”

Sirolli and his team had a solid plan and good intentions, but without that one incredibly important piece of information about the hippos, their work in the garden was wasted. Through this experience, Sirolli learned the importance of listening first and acting second. I love his story because it illustrates a great truth that we can all learn: If you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answers.

I’ve had to work hard to become a good listener. My impatient nature can make it difficult to stop and open my ears. Leaders tend to have a bias toward action, but over the years I have learned the value of listening with more intentionality. As a result, both my team and I have enjoyed better results.

Is it possible to be a leader without being a listener? Sure. I talk to employees all across the country who tell me they work for people who don’t listen to them. But is it possible to be a good leader without listening? No. Leaders cannot take their organizations to the highest levels without making the most of messages they hear from their people.

“A leader has to show curiosity,” former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca once said. “He has to listen to people outside the ‘Yes, sir’ crowd in his inner circle…. The inability to listen is a form of arrogance. It means either you think you already know it all, or you just don’t care.”

Take the following week-long challenge to improve your leadership listening.

The Listening Audit

The first step is to take an honest look at your current approach to communication. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Am I open to other people’s ideas?
2. Am I open to changing my opinion based on new information?
3. Am I actively seeking feedback and input in order to move the team forward?
4. Do I act defensively when criticized, or do I listen openly for the truth?
5. Do I ask questions in every conversation?

At the end of each day, reflect on the day’s interactions—every meeting, conference call, phone conversation and so on—and calculate the percentage of the time that you spent listening as opposed to the time you spent speaking. How much of the day were you actively taking in information? At the end of the week, tally up your percentages and get an average. Set a goal to increase your listening percentage in the upcoming week. Be sure to track your progress.

What you are trying to develop are these five strengths of a listening leader:

Connecting. In my book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I write about the Law of Connection, which states, “Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand.” You cannot connect with other people when you are the one doing all the talking! Do this intentionally. Stop, make eye contact and be fully present, and you’ll find yourself truly connecting—not half-listening.

Building confidence. Take time to listen to each person on your team. New people, in particular, offer a fresh perspective that can lead to valuable insights, but they may not feel they have the right to contribute their thoughts. Shake their insecurity by soliciting their ideas and taking those suggestions to heart. Henry David Thoreau once said, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.” Don’t you feel the same way?

Soliciting ideas. Great leaders create an environment of innovation. That requires actively seeking out new ideas. I often find that listening precedes great periods of creativity in an organization. In the words of Richard Branson, “Any organization’s best assets are its people, and if you are ready to help the team to achieve its goals, you can start gathering information on how to move things along just by paying attention to what employees are saying.”

Taking action. With your new focus on intentional listening, you will probably find that you have an abundance of good ideas at your fingertips. Just hearing them isn’t enough. Good ideas have expiration dates. You need to act before they become dated, irrelevant or otherwise spoiled. A bonus: Members of your team will see your responsiveness, feel valued, trust you with their ideas and keep bringing them forward.

Reflecting nightly. Maximize your new habits by taking time before bed to think and reflect so you can process and apply what you have learned.

Do you want to increase your leadership capacity? Work on applying these practices on a consistent basis. Pastor and speaker Robert Schuller once said, “Big egos have little ears.”

I challenge you to become the opposite—a small ego with big ears. Because that’s the kind of person who truly excels.

Are you giving your employees the permission to speak freely? Find out how to inspire healthy boundaries on your team.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.