For Leader's Who Want to Grow

For Leader's Who Want to Grow

Deepen Your Commitment to Listening

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts...” (Hebrews 3:15)


I was asked to consult for a multi-million dollar communications division of a national church. Its leader had come to the table only weeks before with impressive credentials in the private and NGO fields.

He had accumulated a slew of prestigious awards. He had been brought on board in the midst of crisis. The very survival of the ministry depended on his decisive, sure-handed leadership.

I entered the room where he and his staff had gathered to discuss the ministry’s options for proceeding – each of them complicated, expensive and fraught with risk. If he was a farmer, we would say he was “betting the farm” on the outcome.

I expected the meeting to begin with an insightful, well-reasoned and probably long statement by this leader, proving to the staff that they were in very good hands. That’s not what I got. Instead, after he called the meeting to order he asked each of his staff members to update the group on their respective areas of responsibility.

Wrong again

When they were done, I thought, he would begin his presentation. But again, I was wrong. Instead, he asked a question and waited for staff members to respond. Then he asked another and waited some more. After that he asked more questions, each time waiting for responses from his staff.

At the end of the meeting he probably hadn’t said 200 words. But as the meeting unfolded to the cadence of his questions, the quality of the discussion quickly improved. Each person brought their heart, head and expertise to the table in accumulating quantities. At the end, despite a lack of verbosity on the part of the leaders, the organization’s predicament and its options stood out in exquisite detail and contrast.

The leader called everyone to prayerfully reflect on the options until their next meeting in a couple of days, then initiated a very brief closing prayer asking the Lord’s guidance on the team, its members’ deliberations and their decisions. He asked that, ultimately, they serve His purposes. Then he adjourned the meeting and everyone went home.

I had spent most of the meeting on the sidelines, sitting in judgment of this man’s leadership -- concluding again and again that I saw nothing special that reflected his brilliant résumé or justified his recent, high-profile hiring.

A belated lesson

Only after we had all left the building and I was driving home did it hit me. I finally realized what he had accomplished. By mostly listening and only very selectively responding, he had brought out the very best in his staff and built a deep consensus about the life-threatening problem at hand and the options for addressing it.

The team was united and ready to move to a decision – an informed decision intended to serve God’s purposes first and foremost.

Management consultant Jennifer Miller tells a similar story, although entirely from a secular point of view. (I find that key leadership lessons are affirmed in both what we call the “sacred” and “secular’ realms. And why not? Both, after all, are God’s holy realm.)

Here is Jennifer’s story in her own words:

For many years, I worked with a highly effective (and very respected) leader named Jack, who at the time was a senior executive at a large insurance company.

After working together on a few corporate projects, Jack asked me to lead a three-day strategic planning session for his team. About two hours into the first day of our meeting, I noticed something unusual: Jack had contributed very little to the discussion. Aside from opening remarks and the occasional clarifying statement, Jack sat leaning back in his chair, quietly observing.

This “quiet Jack” was a departure. My interactions with him were usually conducted with groups of 3-4 people, in which his demeanor was assertive, sometimes to the point of being confrontational. Known as a hard-charging, results-oriented manager, Jack liked to “stir the pot” in small group settings to challenge people’s assumptions and test their convictions.

“Why the quiet stance?” I asked him at a break on the second day. “Because if I don’t shut up and listen, I won’t learn anything,” he replied.

And there it is – the Big Lesson: “If I don’t shut up and listen, I won’t learn anything.” 

In James 1:19, James encourages us to be 'quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.' Being quick to listen allows us to hear others first, to really listen to them, then we can consider the best way to respond without hasty emotion.

Tread lightly

One thing leaders with positions of authority often don’t learn is that their words generally carry extra weight, especially with their staffs. Many say they want to foster “speak-up cultures,” but then they kill the seed of their good intentions with unfortunate behavior.

Studies show that leaders who are generally the first to speak often end up, however inadvertently, quashing helpful discussion. Staff members end up playing “follow the leader” instead of bringing their best to the table.

Why? Well, when you take it apart, there are a lot of reasons. They don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to get in a quarrel with their boss. They feel vulnerable (even when they’re not always consciously aware of it). In a word, they are afraid.

By the way, effective leaders work hard to create safe environments where their staff members are comfortable bringing their very best to the table, no matter how odd or unorthodox it may seem. Why? Because a lot of people are scripted to go along to get along. They aren’t secure either in their own insights or circumstances. In a word – yes, the same word -- they are afraid.

Echo chamber

When leaders don’t make it a point to listen – and listen intently – what they intended to be an idea factory becomes instead an echo chamber.

When leaders don't listen, an idea factory becomes an echo chamber. 

So when it comes to effective communications, leaders who want to keep growing themselves, their staffs and their organizations have  to focus on one skill more than any other: Listening.

It’s an oxymoronic fact of life that the most important communications skill is listening.

Vision important

Yes, leaders have to know how to express a myriad of messages clearly. Most important, as Keepers of the Vision, they have to both verbalize and embody their organization’s mission and vision. They have to break down complex processes into simple, easy to grasp tasks for everyone on their team. They have to describe clearly what success looks like.

But first and foremost, they have to be able to listen.

As Vicki Williams, an HR executive with NBCUniversal puts it: “Leaders who don’t listen will soon find themselves with people who have nothing to say.”



Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.