Effective Leaders Pause and Listen

This morning, I read an article in T+D by Nance Guilmartin about the importance of cultivating humility in an organization’s leaders.

She poses a great question:

“What don’t I know I don’t know?”

Putting the needs of others first, and acting in support of your organization are key elements of servant leadership. That’s basic.

But there can be an arrogance there, too. You can assume that you know what is needed – because you’re the leader, and you ought to know.

This is what Peter Block refers to as a paternalistic view of leadership — “taking care” of people who “don’t know better” as opposed to a true commitment to learning what is needed.


When I was a band director, my enthusiasm and affirmation of individuals worked very well when it came to motivating students and building the community and common work ethic. But sometimes, it seemed to backfire. And always with the same kind of kid – the “perfectionist”. (In DiSC lingo, a “high C”)

“What these students need,” I deluded myself, “is to ‘grow up’ and let go of this silly perfectionism. As their teacher, their ‘champion’, their ‘partner in learning’, it is up to me to ‘fix’ them — to get them to let go of their uptight obsession with being right, and become happier, more relaxed individuals.”

So, when Erin resisted playing the improvised bongo part on the spur of the moment, I implored her to “relax”, and “just wing it!”  “It’ll be okay!” My affirmation and enthusiasm were the last thing she needed — she really needed explicit and clear guidelines, preferably written and provided a week in advance.

I could provide dozens more specific examples over the last two decades that make me wince in shame. (I could also testify to the power of DiSC – DiSC is what got me out of this cycle.) But let’s keep it simple:

Ask “What don’t I know I don’t know?”




GE’s Jack Welch, in Winning, points out that this may meet the leader’s needs also: “Obviously, some people have better ideas than others; some people are smarter or more experienced or more creative. But everyone should be heard and respected. They want it and you need it.”

Two other books really pound this home. In Ury’s The Power of a Positive No, he points out that understanding the “other” was critical to his success as a hostage negotiator. More potent was Leadership and Self-Deception, which I finished a while ago, but is sticking with me and may be the most affecting book I’ve read this year.

I’ve cited a lot of books and authors here, but hopefully you don’t find it derivative — instead, see it as a persistent and credible theme that cuts across all disciplines and outlooks.

Listen more. Talk less. Pause and learn.

“Every [one] I meet is in some way, my superior.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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