February 10th, 2009

Academic Leadership Qualities Include Good Listening Skills


How do you come across to the people you work with? Does what you say and how you say it send mixed messages? Are your actions consistent with your words? Do you listen intently? Do you acknowledge others’ ideas? All these questions are important for any leader, and answering them honestly can help you become a better leader, says Florence Richman, special assistant to the president for academic growth at Northern Virginia Community College.

Richman, a former dean of nursing who also has a background in corporate leadership, recommends that leaders work toward becoming more mindful—engaging with what others are saying and “being present in the moment” rather than leading with one’s own preconceived ideas about the way things ought to be.

Failing to listen intently or giving the impression that you do not take input from others seriously can suppress good ideas as well. “Some people in a group may be silent, not because they have nothing to say but because they might feel or interpret that they are not heard,” Richman says.

Some of the skills of being a more mindful leader are basic “Communication 101” skills such as acknowledging others’ ideas by saying, “What I hear you saying is …” nodding, maintaining eye contact, or asking for more information, Richman says.

But mindful leadership goes well beyond giving the impression of being a good listener. It also requires that you become more reflective about your communication and the messages you get from others.

“After communicating, you’ve got to step back and ask, ‘What was said? How did I come across? Did I truly communicate my goal, my ideas, my intent?’ These are really simplistic notions, but to really implement them into our everyday lives is another story,” Richman says.

When you reflect, you don’t have to sit quietly. You can simply jot down what you heard, how you practiced listening and mindfulness, and any reflective thoughts you have about the communication. By keeping a journal, you can monitor your progress; however, Richman cautions, progress will not be automatic. “We’re not always 100 percent all the time. It depends on the situations that come up. Keeping a journal and constantly practicing can be tough at first. As you keep practicing—it is practice—you will improve.”

You need to consider, “Am I really looking into the person’s eyes? Am I really hearing what they’re saying? Is their body language matching what they’re saying? Are they just being diplomatic and agreeing, or do they really agree?”

Richman also recommends getting a second opinion from a trusted colleague to help you become more aware of your communication skills and habits.

Excerpted from Becoming a More Mindful Leader, Academic Leader, vol. 22, no. 2.