Lead by learning. Learn by listening.
In the last chapter, we explored the distinctions between management and leadership, and on the importance of focusing on leading people rather than institutions. I also noted that leading people is not a matter of telling them what to do, but rather of building a collective sense of purpose and finding ways to support everyone as the work toward living out that purpose. Doing so requires you to know the people you’re working with, to understand their concerns, and to learn from their ideas. And that demands that a leader do a whole lot less talking and a whole lot more listening.
I have explored the importance of listening as a practice at length in Generous Thinking, so I won’t rehash that here. The key, however, is recognizing that in every exchange, with every member of your broader community, you have more to learn than you think. In fact, if you open yourself to it, you have more to learn than you do to teach.
And real listening requires being open to what you hear, rather than simply performing a listening state. There’s all too much of that these days: organizational life is filled with “listening sessions” that ask key stakeholders to take the time and exercise the significant effort to share their experiences and opinions. Our campuses are filled with advisory committees, task forces, working groups, all of whose members are asked to invest their energy and care in developing recommendations for the administration to act upon. When those listening sessions and task force reports pass without appreciable results — with management instead making the choice everyone knew it was always going to make — all that labor and investment winds up not just unproductive but counterproductive. It breeds distrust and disinvestment.
On the other hand, listening sessions that result in real action — that invite further investment and involvement on the part of those sharing their thoughts, and that give them a genuine sense of having made a contribution — can actively build community. And advisory groups that are truly heard by those they advise, and that are able likewise to communicate openly with the constituencies they represent, can build trust.
The factor that makes the difference in these two outcomes is deep listening. Deep listening is not just hearing others out but really attempting to understand, internalize, and act upon what you’re being told.
That is of course not to say that you can adopt or act upon every idea or opinion that you hear. Some ideas might be undesirable. Others might be desirable but difficult. Those ideas still need to be spoken, and listened to, and acknowledged. If you have a genuinely open forum, with a broad enough participation, the undesirable ideas are likely to be countered by differing perspectives, and the difficult ideas might begin to suggest possibilities. The key is the role of the leader in the listening sessions: not just nodding, not just taking notes, but instead asking further questions that can help to elicit more input rather than shutting that input down. It also requires, as Arlie Hochschild demonstrates in Strangers in Their Own Land, checking in to see if you’re taking the right things from what you’re being told, reframing what you’re hearing and asking whether you’ve gotten it right.
Deep listening requires a willingness not just to lead people in the directions that we already want to go, but instead to take our lead from those we are supposed to guide. If we’re willing to do that — to put aside ego, expectations, presumptions, and instead focus on what we’re being told, what we might be missing — we can develop plans that will be better because they’re more matched to actual community needs.
This is especially true of support services on campus, as those who use existing services know far better than we do what’s working and what’s not. But it’s also true of the curriculum. In fact, this is where listening becomes most important, because the faculty and the administration have lived within the curriculum for most of their lives; we bring to it not just long-standing field-based expertise but also a host of assumptions about the forms of knowledge necessary to produce the outcomes we seek to create.
What might happen, however, if we were to recognize that the outcomes are not ours to create? The outcomes in the end belong to our students, and so might best be shaped in collaboration with those students. We have the potential to work with them to build something entirely new, instead of reproducing our own structures of knowledge.
This potential is perhaps most enhanced if we’re willing to listen to the experiences and goals of first-generation students, rural students, as well as students from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. Many, though by no means all, of these students come to college and university campuses with different needs and intentions for their educations than do middle-class suburban white students. Their goals are often far less individual than they are community-oriented, and they bring family and community concerns with them to campus. What might be possible if, rather than finding ways to inculcate these students into the conventional structures of the university, we instead took our lead from them and their needs and desires? What if we genuinely listened to what they had to tell us, and learned from it, and built structures and curricula that centered their experiences and goals?
In moments of crisis and conflict, it’s especially important that leaders listen carefully to those who have been harmed by the failures of existing systems and structures. It was the voices of the Sister Survivors at MSU, testifying about their experiences in open court and at great personal cost, that finally forced overdue institutional attention to be paid not just to a horrific campus predator but also to the structures that enabled him to assault hundreds of young women. Those assaults were made possible by the number of people who refused to listen when they were told what was happening, who refused to believe what they were being told, who refused to act once they’d heard. And the case at MSU is far from unique: on campuses around the country, predatory behavior is not just ignored but facilitated by policies and processes that punish those who speak out against it. Genuinely transformative justice — justice that seeks not retribution against the individuals who cause harm but rather fundamental change in the circumstances and structures that enable the harm — can only start with deep attention to those who have been harmed.
When you listen to the people most affected by your institution’s policies and processes, you’re likely to be confronted with a lot of things you’d rather not hear. They’re painful, they’re inconvenient, they’re at odds with the ways you’d prefer to think of yourself, your institution, your commitments. But none of that makes the things you’re hearing untrue. None of it is cause for refusing to listen. It is cause, rather, for some difficult work, both personal and structural, seeking ways to open yourself to the possibility that everything you’re hearing is true, and demands action.