“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” – Stephen Covey
Just because a person is in a leadership position doesn’t mean they are a leader. I have known people in positions of authority who could control assets such as money, positions, and other resources who really weren’t leading anyone, they were merely controlling them. In contrast, I have known individuals who had no formal authority over resources, yet they were leaders because they had earned influence with others.
Leaders seek to understand those they would lead. Sometimes that understanding flows naturally from having performed the follower’s job for years such as when a high performer is promoted to a supervisor position. The new leader has the initial advantage of knowing the job quite well and understanding, partially, what the followers are experiencing. But, even in this scenario, the leader’s understanding is only partial because the followers are individuals with different ideas and aptitudes from the leader.
True leaders “seek first to understand.” They discipline themselves to spend time with followers, learning their values, goals, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges. They practice listening, not just communicating. I have observed too many authority figures whose “communications” involved them talking 90% of the time or issuing long, written missives that they expected their subordinates to read. Listening leaders keep an open mind and are willing to hear and consider information that they may not want to hear.
It’s not that the leader must adopt or act upon all the information that they gain from listening and understanding their followers. Indeed, not all of the information they gain will be accurate, relevant, or practical. Followers expect to be heard, to have their ideas valued, and to have their leaders discipline themselves to seek understanding. Leaders who “seek first to understand” put themselves on the path to earning the right to lead from their followers.