Posts Tagged ‘listening’

Listening isn’t about getting information. It’s about building confidence.

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Listening is by far the most important skill for a leader to hone. Have you ever seen a leader who seems unflappable and remains calm in even the most chaotic circumstances? Watch that person closely and you will see the secret to this cool demeanor—focused listening. As a leader, you need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? If you speak too soon, you shut off creative impulse. You shut off collaboration. By speaking too soon, you force ideas on your team, even if that is not your intention. When you keep silent long enough to understand fully—not just hear—what someone is saying or doing, you create space for that person to invent, aspire, and contribute. By creating that space, you afford your team a sense of ownership, and you make room for the possibility that someone on your team has the best idea at this moment. By listening carefully, you sharpen all your senses and promote composure among those around you.

Pay Attention

There are many ways to listen; the most obvious is with your ears. However the act of listening is far more nuanced than just hearing words. To do it effectively you must pay careful attention to sounds and much more. The pace, breath, tone, and inflection of the voice all combine to provide the implied meaning, intentions, state-of-mind, and needs of the speaker. Reactions of your fellow listeners can also teach much. When you listen attentively, you shelve your own thoughts, and for a moment there is no judgment, no discrimination, no understanding. Only listening. When you listen deliberately, your mind—which is like a hyperactive dog pulling on a leash—soon starts barking with ideas, assumptions, interpretations, and decisions. If you can hold that dog off for a bit, you can listen with clarity, which leads to hidden insights. Insights that are very useful to a leader.

Listening is not for ears alone. When you practice listening, you sharpen your other senses—sight, smell, taste, and touch. When you listen carefully with your ears, you can sense tone and inflection, cadence and emphasis—all of which combine to provide insight into the meaning of the words spoken. When you apply that same level of attention with your sight, you might notice a flicker in the corner of an eye, a twitch in the corner of a mouth, a shift in stance—all of which combine to provide insights into meaning both overt and covert. You develop a perception skill that few even know exists, let alone master.

Our wonderful human brain can simultaneously process observations made with all our senses. Listening as a practice sharpens that awareness automatically and leads to clearer perception of what is happening with the people on your team and in their environment. This clearer perception leads to competitive advantage because you can identify critical cues about intentions and motivations.

Are You Listening?

Most schools don’t teach listening. Neither do most parents. The closest we get to teaching children to listen is concentration games such as I Spy, Where’s Waldo? and Memory Match Cards, which emphasize keen observation but not listening per se. Early in childhood, by the third grade in the communities I have seen firsthand, we move our kids’ efforts toward serious academic pursuits, which usually involve more than a decade of frenetic preparation for scarce slots among top universities. As a result, we produce well-educated men and women with a singular need to demonstrate that they are the smartest person in the room, who vie to answer first, and who are not very practiced at listening. How many times have you come across this person in your career? Are you one of them?

Some kids growing up in this education system react to competition by becoming a class clown in an attempt to divert academic scrutiny or out of scorn for it. No listening there. Those who cannot compete in the “speed-answer-game” or the corollary “snarky-comment-game” often give up. For them, daydreaming or socializing becomes a deeply ingrained habit. Listening loses out here, too. Other kids end up pursuing non-intellectual competition, usually focused on running or retaining possession of a fast-moving ball. These more athletic youngsters might learn to listen to a coach, but if you have ever coached kids, you know they aren’t usually listening; they just get skilled at looking as if they are.

In other words, education, development, and training in every country on earth are invested in sharpening competitive skills. This is indeed necessary for leadership, but it is not sufficient. I have spent much of my life perfecting a competitive instinct. I love competition, thrive on it, and believe it is the fuel that makes a democracy and capitalism possible. What I find disappointing is that in the midst of all the competitive juices flowing in academic, athletic, and professional endeavors, we neglect to develop the most important skill we will ever have—careful listening. It is the doorway to understanding our world and our place in it, and is the source of every great leader’s strength.

If this doesn’t make sense, consider the fact that a professional baseball coach doesn’t win by hitting a home run.  A baseball coach wins by getting the team to function well and consistently over the course of nearly one hundred ninety games each season. He assembles a team that has the potential to win. There are key athletes on the team that can hit home runs when needed most. There are those who pitch well at the beginning or at the end of a game.  There are others who field the ball well together and make brilliant defensive plays. To guide a team to victory, the baseball coach must have a very clear awareness of the abilities, temperament, and condition of each member of his roster, and an awareness of each of these critical areas is best sharpened by practicing clear and concentrated listening every day on and off the field. With a competitive drive, the coach will make the effort to lead the team well. And, if he listens well and pays attention with all his senses, the coach can consistently lead them to win.

Listen and Learn

Listening is a skill that, like any other, is mastered only through practice. And because listening isn’t part of the standard primary or secondary curriculum, we are all sorely in need of practice. Our minds are very busy. You and I and every person trying to lead an organization has a mind that acts like a dog sniffing, chasing, and barking at shadows and leaves rustling in the breeze. Learning to listen meticulously is a lot like training a dog. Want to learn how? Let’s practice.

Breathe. Find a quiet place. Sit still and comfortably with a reasonably straight but relaxed spine. Close your eyes. Bring all your awareness to your breath as you inhale and exhale as fully and deeply as you can. Allow your mind and body to relax and settle a bit as you use the breath to bring yourself into the present moment.

Observe. Open your eyes and look down at what is in front of you. With your eyes open, you are less likely to start daydreaming. For this practice to be effective, be sure to stay awake and present. What do you hear? Can you hear traffic? Birds chirping? People talking nearby? Your heartbeat? The blood rushing in your ears? A clock ticking? Your breath? Let your mind roam and listen to everything around you, all while your eyes are open.

Concentrate. With your eyes still open, concentrate on your slow, deep breaths in silence. Listen to each breath carefully as it enters your nostrils, passes through your trachea, fills your lungs, and then reverses. Continue to listen to the inhales, exhales, and subtle spaces in between. These sounds and the sounds of all the activity around you can each be perceived individually and collectively in each breath. Every time your mind wanders away from your breath, just smile, take an extra deep breath, and start again. You are concentrating on one point amidst all the activity around you. Just breathe. You are training your mind to sit still instead of roam.

Awareness. You may get bored listening to your breath. You might become frustrated that you end up in a daydream after each few breaths, even though your eyes are open. You might feel antsy. You might realize you are hungry. No matter what you experience, whenever you notice that you have strayed from your breath, you are having a spark of awareness—you just woke up. Use that awareness and just come back to studying each breath while you observe all the other sounds around you and in you. Practice patience with yourself. Practice calm control. Practice staying present. You are gently training your concentration to come back on command.

Practice. Do this for at least five minutes every morning or evening, whenever you are likely to consistently set time aside. If you enjoy this practice, do it for ten or fifteen minutes every day or try it for five minutes three times a day. After two weeks, apply your honed, concentrated listening to someone speaking to you. If you notice that your mind wanders, becomes bored, or starts coming up with ideas while that person is speaking, use that same spark of awareness to return to the speaker. Come back to their voice, just like you came back to studying breaths. With practice, you will notice that you aren’t drifting as much, and you will start to see, hear, and feel cues you may never have noticed before.

Listening Inspires

Leadership is a relationship, and listening is essential to building successful relationships. When people are heard fully and completely, without interruption and without debate until they have finished their point, they are more likely to trust you. They are far more likely to be receptive to whatever ideas you would like them to consider—whether it is a request you are making of them or an opinion you would like to share with them.

Have you ever seen a leader checking email messages on a laptop, BlackBerry, or iPhone during a meeting? Are you one of those leaders? Not only is this enormously disrespectful, it is self-defeating. By not listening and observing, you miss the most valuable information you need to lead, and you simultaneously devalue the speaker and the others in the room. Pay attention to the people in the room or cancel the meeting. Listening isn’t just about getting information you need; the act of listening is the primary tool you have to inspire and motivate others.

It doesn’t take much effort to become a more effective listener. Consistent practice is essential. If you start now, in a few weeks you will already be a more skilled listener than the majority of people on the planet. The average adult attention span has been conditioned by years of television and Web browsing to last only about twenty seconds.9 So if you can focus your attention for five minutes, then you will be operating fifteen times higher than the average. Not a bad start. Even more valuable, by practicing calm listening every day, your demeanor begins to adjust. You begin to be more deliberate, even in the midst of noise and chaos. You will appear unflappable, which is always inspiring. Your natural levels of passion and enthusiasm will not be dampened—they will be more focused.

People will start to take notice and you will too. What are you waiting for? Try it right now. We are at the end of this post. It is a good time to take five minutes to practice listening. And always remember the ancient wisdom of Epictetus:  We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.


  • Be still and silent.
  • Relax your mind and observe.
  • Use your breath to focus your attention.
  • Let go of expectations and judgments.
  • Stay present and focused on your breath.
  • Each time you drift from observing your breath, gently guide yourself back to it.
  • Do this, in silence, five minutes every day.
  • Apply this deliberate awareness to all situations.

Book Reviews for Inspiring Excellence

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Book: Inspiring Excellence

This new take on leadership as a learned behavior is now available on  They have it online and it is fully searchable.  So far, the book has received strong endorsements.

Jeff Seely CEO

I’ve read a number of management science/behavior books (many!) and I found Schutzler’s book to be a useful, refreshing and insightful read. He captures aspects of leadership in a clear and direct voice, and he uses great real-life vignettes to make his points in a fun and easily understandable way. This is a quick read, and unlike so many of the business books I start, I finished this one, and with a smile on my face. I recommend it to any business professional looking to refine his or her style of leadership.

Jim Wiggett, CEO Jackson Hole Group

Michael Schutzler takes you through a journey of experience and a broad range of leadership dimensions. Inspiring Excellence is both comprehensive and insightful. I highly recommend the book for leaders who want to up their game.

Sandy Gould, VP Human Resources Linden Lab – creators of SecondLife

Inspiring Excellence is a lightning strike of clarity and simplicity. Michael Schutzler distills the profound principles of great leadership into basic and clear precepts of action and relationship. His model
draws from what we all experience and know but can’t seem to pin down. He does!

Paul Goodrich, Managing Director Madrona Venture Group

This well-organized, thoughtful book distills a broad topic down to very specific, actionable, and practical tools for sharpening leadership skills. I intend to keep a copy in the top drawer of my desk for handy reference and as a periodic reminder of the blueprint for effective leadership.

Aaron Finn, CEO

Michael Schutzler has done a great job explaining leadership skills and practice in a way that applies to any situation, including the way a person leads his or her life. Inspiring Excellence is filled with great
examples of applying real leadership skills in real situations.

Brett Thompson, SVP Human Resources Classmates Online

Michael Schutzler took his many years of real world experience and learning and translated it into a compelling must-read. I am recommending this book to everyone in my professional network.

Tom Donlea, Executive Director Merchant Risk Council

Inspiring Excellence presents an approach to leadership that works even in the “double bottom line” setting of a non-profit organization.

Courage in the face of fear

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

I went to the Washington State Presidential primary caucuses yesterday, which put my brain into history mode. It struck me again that great leaders stand their ground under fire, at times even under persecution. It’s not what they promise; it’s what they do when their mettle is tested. Great leaders face daunting challenges with resolve and inspire others with hope for a better future.

So I began to wonder, what is it about George W. Bush’s war in Iraq that doesn’t pass the sniff test for any but the most reactionary of noses? President Bush has been pestered, ridiculed, and chastised by many pundits and leaders, and in addition he has lost about two-thirds of the country’s support in pursuit of his foreign policy in Iraq. He has been under fire to say the least. He has asked us to aspire to a safer world and freedom for the Iraqi people. Why isn’t he seen by most as a great leader for sticking to his guns for this admirable intention? Without resorting to the same old arguments on this topic, I see two answers of use for all leaders.

The first and simplest answer is, the war in Iraq isn’t over. It hasn’t been won by anyone’s accounting. And although the mission objectives have been ambiguous and fluid over the past four years, not even the current mission objectives have been achieved with any sense of finality. So it is fair to say that judging his leadership on Iraq might be premature.

But there is a deeper answer to why George W. Bush isn’t seen as a great leader on this topic. The primary verb in leadership is “inspire.” President Bush has used 9/11 – one moment of pain in our recent history – to declare a military campaign to root out the source of evil. That’s a flawed promise because the source of 9/11 is essentially one man, who still lives, breathes, and communicates effectively with his followers. It is a flawed promise because the root of this evil is so wide and so pervasive, we would have to kill or subdue everyone who harbors ill will against the United States, which in turn will create more who harbor ill will against us in a never ending cycle of violence.

Leaders who elevate fear and safety as a rationale for action always create more doubt than motion. Why? Because whenever a leader elevates fear and safety as a primary concern to give impetus to an agenda, there are many already willing to face that fear and already have another agenda. Leaders who proclaim “I have the answer” instill either doubt or set themselves up for a reckoning later. Leaders who on the other hand challenge us to build or attain something and say “I believe we can do this,” are inspiring. Though we might fail, there is more motion than doubt. Lincoln, FDR, and JFK understood this. But it doesn’t require a president or brilliant orator to understand this – any decent parent understands this.  As leaders, we have the opportunity to demonstrate courage in the face of fear.  When we step up to do so, we lead others to do the same.

George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was not courage in the face of fear. It was a simplistic response to a violent act fueled by misplaced hatred and misguided political objectives. And in the process, we became the thing we sought to punish. Worse yet, President Bush created a divisive, exclusionary principle: if you are not with us you are against us. A great leader seeks inclusion – because by bringing people together, we build a better place.

In response to 9/11, a great leader would have challenged us to first forgive those assailants who were manipulated into suicide and then challenged the world to join us in building a deeper understanding of one another while bringing the principal hate mongerers to justice. Had President Bush done this, we would have collectively held him in high esteem as a great leader. Instead, his approach of elevating our fears, focusing our actions on a false sense of security, and forcing his agenda through the use of executive power has left us with a feeling of doubt and anguish.

A fine lesson for anyone in a leadership role.

(c) 2008 BlueSeven Partners LLC

The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

Amazon Listing: The Black Swan

For hundreds of years, the commonly held truth in Europe was that all swans are white. All the evidence “proved” this. Then one day a European explorer in Australia discovered a black swan. The theory of white swan exclusivity died suddenly. The black swan metaphor serves as the label for a series of examples in which absence of evidence is confused with evidence of absence in this intriguing book. A Black Swan is defined as an unlikely event with three parts: it is unpredictable, it has significant impact, and when we look back at the event, we perceive an obvious explanation that makes it appear predictable when in fact it wasn’t. The author asserts that Google’s sudden economic prowess was a Black Swan and that 9/11 was a Black Swan. He makes a compelling argument in this book that Black Swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives.

According to Taleb, we not only miss the forest for the trees, we tend to see the grass and miss the trees as well. We concentrate on variations of things we already know and fail to consider what we don’t know. As a result, we are unable to estimate very well. Fortunately, the author doesn’t just pose the challenge. He does offer some simple techniques for turning black swans into grey swans and then benefiting from them.

The Author
Nassim Nicholas Taleb was a successful quant-trader working on Wall Street. He is a highly educated man and was until recently Professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is a polymath with a strong grasp of history and mathematics, and most importantly in a book like this, a sense of humor.