One of a true leader's most important attributes is his or her ability to listen -- carefully, thoughtfully, critically -- to the concerns, plans, and hopes of stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders, and communities. The problem, of course, is that even as a leader tries to listen, there is no lack of people trying to flatter, isolate, influence, cajole, persuade, ingratiate, and bamboozle him or her. How can a leader be open to feedback and new thinking without falling prey to the agendas of those with only their own best interests at heart? By listening actively -- asking questions, requesting clarifications, and challenging opinions -- and watching for specific tip-offs that things aren't quite what they seem to be. To wit: Listen for Disagreement: Strong leaders want strong subordinates who will challenge their thinking and preconceived notions. In fact, the best leaders coach subordinates to disagree freely and to argue forcefully for their positions -- until a decision is made. Then a leader needs everyone on his team, regardless of any personal feelings about the decision. Every executive knows this drill, which is precisely why listening to disagreements that violate its protocol is so useful.
- Do some of your subordinates continue to argue long after a decision is made? If so, you have a turf battle brewing, one serious enough that they don't mind squabbling in front of you. If it's not affecting business yet, it will.
- Does one of your subordinates rarely, if ever, disagree with you? If so, he's either disengaged or a liar, because no two human beings can agree on everything. Either way, you've got a problem.
- Does one of your subordinates complain about a decision long after it has been made? If constant kvetching is a habit, then you've got a crank on your team, an irritating but rarely business-threatening condition. But if the complaints and comments are about a specific decision, and you normally trust the complainer, take a second look. Somebody else may not be telling you something.