Spirit At Work -- Are You Really Listening?

Dec. 21, 2004
Asking simple, critical questions leads to tangible, tough answers.

Recently I spoke at a conference of some of the smartest, most thoughtful, and successful executives in North America. This was an elite audience of handpicked stars -- the kind of bright lights you would love to have working in your organization. One of the features of this event was the ability to ask the audience questions, to which they could respond anonymously through a remote keypad assigned to each attendee. After a few seconds' voting, instant feedback for the entire audience could be accumulated and gauged, and, if appropriate, discussed. I took the opportunity to ask my audience this question: "If you had been given the choice on Nov. 7, 2000, would you have voted for Al Gore, George W. Bush, or Josiah Bartlett, the president in the NBC White House drama series, "The West Wing"? Seventy-six percent voted for Josiah Bartlett. The vacuum of leadership in our lives is so profound that we look to imaginary leaders to inspire us. We hope that life will imitate art and that real people will behave as these inspiring, but imaginary, leaders do, for they represent the quality of leadership we yearn for. How does this lack of enthusiasm for our leaders play out in the real corporate world? How do the smartest executives in North America translate this sense of disappointment into their own lives? To check this out, the audience was asked this question: "Have you considered leaving your company during the last six months?" Eighty-two percent said they had. So we might conclude that many of this cross section of some of the brightest corporate leaders in our land think that Josiah Bartlett would make a better president than Gore or Bush, and probably a better corporate leader than the one they have. What's more, they feel sufficiently strongly about this that they have considered defecting to another organization to work with a more inspiring leader. (In subsequent questioning, inadequate opportunities for personal growth and intellectual stimulation ran a distant second as a reason for considering defection, while material considerations, including pay and benefits, barely showed up on the radar.) This suggests that leaders who seek to inspire their followers need to ask themselves two vital questions. First, "Am I really listening?" Do I seriously attempt to attune myself to the feelings of followers and ask them simple, but crucial, questions, such as the ones I have described above? Secondly, "Am I asking the right questions?" I see dozens of standard satisfaction surveys from big consulting firms in my work. Too many of them ask tepid questions about pay and working conditions and therefore elicit the answers that leaders want to hear. This often lulls leadership into a false sense of security as they avoid the tough answers. Too few employee satisfaction surveys are grounded in the courage -- the guts, passion, and conviction to inspire --that results in the will to ask the difficult questions and live with the answers. Questions such as:

  • Are you receiving the quality of leadership that inspires you?
  • Do I inspire you?
  • Do you trust your leader?
  • Does your leader tell the truth?
  • Do we always keep our promises to you?
  • Are you inspired by your work?
  • What could we do that would cause you to be happier here?
  • If we could stop doing one thing, what would it be? Are we honoring your soul at work? In industry after industry, staff turnover and recruitment bottlenecks are the two most critical impediments to growth. But if we stopped losing people out the back door, we would not need to be constantly driving new people into our organizations through the front door. There is not a shortage of good employees; there is a shortage of inspirational leaders and inspiring places to work.

    Lance Secretan is an advisor to leaders, a public speaker, and a recipient of the 1999 International Caring Award, presented by the Caring Institute, Washington. Author of nine books, including Inspirational Leadership, Destiny, Calling and Cause (1999, CDG Books), Secretan can be reached at [email protected].

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