How (NOT) to Be a Leader – I’m Sorry…What?

How Not to Be a Leader Chapter 4This week we continue the serialization of, How (Not) to Be a Leader Volume 1, in preparation for the next two books, How NOT to Build a Great Team and How NOT to Create a Winning Strategy. We hope you will enjoy Chapter 4 I’m Sorry…What?

Sent:  Monday, September 6 at 11:14 pm

From: CEO

To: Bev

Subject: What’s up?

Bev, you wanted to tell me something? Just leave me a note with whatever it was. I’ll let you know if it needs a response.


As the leader, you need to pretend to listen to your people, but really, you’re using your time much more productively. There is a lot of talk these days about leaders being good listeners. But really that’s just BS because leaders are good tellers. Your people are looking to you to tell them what to do. Besides, what could they possibly have to say that you would be interested in hearing?

The current buzz word is active listening. In fact, inactive listening is actually more productive and more suited to a good leader. (Note to self: get a trademark on that phrase. Brilliant!) What this means is that you appear to be listening but you’re not. First, it’s important to look at the other person for a least a couple of seconds of the exchange, but God forbid, don’t try to make eye contact because that’s just awkward and weird. Once you’ve made that initial head shake of listening, just drown out that annoying voice with thoughts about what else you have going on.

This is a great time for you to look around your office and think about what needs redoing or redecorating (it’s always important to have a sharp‑looking office), make your shopping list, or consider the things you really need to do (like make that appointment to get a haircut). When you’ve had enough of the patter and your lists are made, break out of your thoughts and say, “Give me the bullets, please.” This way the other person will have to summarize, and you’ll get the gist of whatever they were blabbing on about.

If, for some reason, you can’t seem to grasp what they are saying or you just plain don’t care, ask them to summarize it in an email and send it to you so you can “think on it.” This always works well, and they are so pleased that you not only listened but think it’s worthy of a follow-up email. And don’t worry, there’s no need to actually read or follow up on that email. Remember, you’re a very busy leader.

Another great strategy for inactive listening is to let the person go on and on, and when you’re bored, say, “I’m sorry, what?” This lets them know you were paying attention but want them to repeat a point. It definitely shows them you care, and empathy is always a sign of a good leader! And the best part is, it’s only three words, saving you from actually having to have a conversation.

Always remember that when someone comes to talk to you, they really came to listen to you. They want to hear what you have to say on whatever subject they’re talking about. You’re the expert—why wouldn’t they want to listen? So, after you’ve let them go on for a few minutes, cut them off and offer your words of wisdom on the subject, even if you don’t know what the hell they were talking about. They just took up your time, now they can listen. And if they’re loyal, they’ll pick up a few tips they can use.

When sharing your wisdom, be sure to give as much or as little detail as you want. Sometimes it’s just nice to hear your own voice. You might even sound more brilliant than you already thought you were, and that’s always a pleasant sound. If you don’t know the subject well, make stuff up because most people are sheep and they don’t want to know the truth, they just want to know what you have to say and hear how you say it. Use big, generic words that are nonspecific and that can be applied to anything and anyone: words like fantastic, great, amazing, terrific, and huge.

There are a couple of pitfalls you want to avoid in inactive listening. First, never get too interested in the topic unless it’s gossip about someone that you can use for your own purposes down the road. If it’s gossip, press the talker for all the dirt they have because, as the leader, it’s important that you know this and it’s important that they know they can come dish to you anytime, like whenever they get a juicy tidbit.

The second pitfall is actually listening. You can get caught up in what the other person is telling you and actually forget that you don’t care, which then makes them think you care. This is the death knell for a leader. It means you let your guard down, and they might think you are actually learning from or interested in something they have to say, which makes you weak. So, if you find yourself actually interested in something they are saying, look at your watch and let them know you have to go so they have a minute to wrap up. Tell them to send you a summary of whatever they were talking about, and if it’s good, use it at the next management meeting as your idea. Gets ’em every time!

Let’s Get Real

As a leader, your job is to listen. People will not follow you or respect you if you don’t care, and listening is a tangible way of caring about the speaker. Your job as a good leader is to mentor and teach all the time, and if you don’t listen, you cannot possibly know how to mentor someone. This is empathy in action, but empathy doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to take action on someone’s behalf.

Your instinct will be to solve whatever the problem is, but that’s not listening. Listen, ask questions, and help the other person solve the problem by talking it through. You can only do this through active listening, and there is no faking it. Active listening means not waiting to talk and not playing the tape in your head of a similar incident that you can share. It means being fully present to what’s being said. It means having empathy and also listening to what’s not being said. Ask questions, really trying to understand where the speaker is coming from and understand what they want or need from you. As a leader, it’s also your job to learn, and the more you listen, the more you learn.

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