Leadership as Listening

Leadership begins with listening. Listening is however a reflective practice that engages with the many voices around us. These voices may come from a variety of sources. They can include the broader culture, the community around us, and the individuals with which a leader is in constant interaction. These voices are not just mere human sounds. Rather, they are clues that inform us about our past, our present, and how we may work together to shape the future. Leadership therefore begins with listening because listening ultimately leads to awareness and commitments. In this post I will draft three ways through which the act of listening culminates into leadership and then offer a brief reflection on how I have lead through listening.

A good leader communicates well and often. However, the better leader is above all a receptor and learner. By listening, a leader is able to promote significant interactions between the individuals in any given organization. Leaders are people who like to listen to other leaders and learn from their experiences. However, perhaps the biggest challenge for any leader is to know how to learn from the voices from bellow. At first instance, the work of leadership involves creating spaces where people engage in the process of idea and decision making. It is through this reflective work that a leader is able to gauge and discern how to connect the dots between information and application for the sake of carrying out a purpose. Therefore, leadership as listening is first of all one who gives a voice to those bellow.

Secondly, listening decentralizes the act of leadership and invites the whole organization to partake in every facet of it. Listening becomes proactive as the leader works to create a community of equality that is formed by a shared life and purpose. When a leader listens he/she prioritizes others over self and shares the leadership role by distributing responsibility and ownership. The Scripture has much to teach us on this point. Jesus emphatically rejected, as far as his community of disciples was concerned, the structures of domination which are customary in society. In a community of brothers no fathers are permitted to rule. This does not imply that authority and power should not exist within an organization. But rather, it means that authority must derive from service and competence.

Thirdly, as the act of listening helps an organization to be aware of its ontological premise. Purpose remains when procedures often fail. It also serves to establish its teleological imperative within its immediate context. Listening is a cycle of reflection that ultimately leads to implementation. Listening is cyclical. Reflection and study on one hand and engagement and action on the other. Listening therefore serves as a tool to interpret and define reality as we at the same time adapt to new challenges. What results is a constant process of self-awareness and recreation of the mission imperative for a particular time and place.

As I reflect on the implications of listening within my own leadership practice I am both humbled and optimistic. I am humbled because it makes me aware of my shortcomings as an ecclesiastical leader. I am optimistic however because leadership as listening has much to contribute to my current role. During my fifteen leaders of full time ministry I have worked in a variety of roles and contexts. One of these contexts was Greece where I spent the first few years working interdenominationally with different local churches and ministries through a national missions agency. My work was vast and undefined but it gave me the chance to broadly assess the conditions through which other leaders carried out their mission. My relationships were broadly horizontal with fellow leaders facing similar challenges.

After many years working as a partner and networker, I accepted an associate pastor’s position at a multicultural church in the outskirts of Athens. My work suddenly shifted from listening to leaders to speaking to congregants. During this shift I have overlooked the importance of listening to my congregants as active agents in God’s mission. I overlooked the fact that the missionaries are in our local churches, they are ordinary people in whom the Spirit is gestating all kinds of unanticipated futures for the kingdom.

More than a mere oversight, I have come short in helping to create an environment where the cycle of listening can occur. In many ways, the shift from working with leaders to working with laypeople altered how I saw them as subjects in God’s mission. The church is missional. That means that every believer is a missionary. With this in mind, the awareness of my own malpractices was liberating. As mentioned before, pastors are like other leaders who are primarily communicators and not speaking can perhaps seem out of place. Listening is above all an empowering practice. It’s when we lead through listening that the encourage the whole church to carry out the whole gospel to the whole world.

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