Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

Leadership in Focus – Listen, Learn and Lead

March 9th, 2017 by Jason Moriarty

Photo courtesy Australian Army

Last week the Chief of Army came and spoke to the Royal Australian Armoured Corps’ Senior Leadership Group. His opening remarks immediately resonated with me personally and, moreover, with the group. The Chief of Army used three words to explain his leadership philosophy: ‘Listen, Learn and Lead’. These three words are particularly powerful when linked together, surpassing the simplicity of the words in isolation. After contemplating the meaning of each word and interrogating others to garner their interpretation, I came up with the reflections below.

Listen

When most leaders listen, they listen with the view to either retort, defend or to express their own opinion. However, when you consider the second word in the philosophy Learn, I believe the purpose is to listen in order to understand. Listening is a difficult skill to learn and master; however, when effectively applied, it can be the most influential tool for a leader. Listening to understand will make people feel valued and empowered to make a difference. Moreover, listening without a plan to respond allows you to truly absorb the meaning of the message the person is conveying.

In order to harness the intellectual corporate knowledge of the group, you need to be open minded enough to want to hear what is being articulated. Just because you are in a leadership position, does not mean you have the monopoly on all good ideas.

Active listening takes practice and a conscious effort to develop. It is strongly embedded in the pillars of emotional intelligence. To be completely honest, listening is a skill I am yet to truly master myself…just ask my wife.

Learn

Listening is important because it helps you understand and learn: learn about yourself and those around you.

History is also a great teacher. Read and learn from history’s failures and successes. Many great leaders, past and present, are advocates for learning history in order to shape the future, and the choices of our leaders. Learning does not have to be from dusty tomes or undertaken in constricting, formal institutional environments. Try reading professional development articles, blogs or current articles on recent conflicts; these are also considered worthy learning activities.

‘Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed. … It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.’ General James “Mad Dog” Mattis

The Chief of Army actively encourages soldiers to further their education and professional development. This can be achieved in a variety of ways. The key is to open your mind to the practice of improving and developing yourself to new opportunities for learning. I believe to learn is to understand oneself and others, to self educate and develop as a mastery in one’s profession.

Lead

We must strip ‘leadership’ down in order to understand what it takes to be considered an effective and successful leader. This helps us to isolate ‘that thing’ we require to be a distinguished leader.

The topic of leadership is as broad as it is complex. Many who read this may not share my opinion on what ‘that thing’ is we require. After much reading, soul-searching and self-interrogation, I have found one word that I believe is at the heart of leadership.  I believe that word is influence. Ultimately, good leaders aim to influence people’s thoughts and actions. Arguably, in order to influence, one also needs a gamut of ‘other’ leadership traits to effect influence, characteristics like honesty, loyalty, charisma, emotional intelligence, effective communication skills, just to name just a few.

If influence is at the heart of good leadership, there are many factors that contribute to the development of ‘healthy’ leadership. Just like an athlete that forges their strength and stamina through training, good leadership is forged through experience, knowledge, education, mentoring and practice. A leader must be aware of the fundamental qualities and virtues that contribute to their leadership, such as charisma, integrity and ambition. However, sound knowledge and skills–such as self-discipline, communicative excellence and planning–take practice and work, and are cultivated through education, experience and mentoring.

Furthermore, many military leaders are possessed with the belief that leaders must be infallible. This belief can be seen in many leaders throughout history, including now. These leaders often believed that followers have intolerance for mistakes and look for any opportunity to discredit them upon finding one. Leaders that lead believing they cannot make a mistake miss opportunities to display the most important aspect of leading, to show their humanity.

Allowing people to make mistakes helps one understand that you learn as much, if not more, from failure than success. Similarly, as we learn from poor leaders versus good ones. Constantly disapproving of the standards achieved by soldiers will only give them a sense of hopelessness and a belief that they will never be able to achieve your standard. In consequence, soldiers will stop trying. When building a team, be swifter (and more often) to reward than punish. This statement does not mean discipline infractions should go unpunished, just be considered and balanced in your approach.

Final Say

There are very strong links between emotional intelligence and the Chief of Army’s leadership philosophy of ‘Listen, Learn and Lead’. As modern leaders, we need to actually listen to what is being said; we need to learn from what has been said; and use what we learn to base our decisions upon. I found the Chief of Army’s personal philosophy on leadership to be powerful. ‘Listen, Learn and Lead’ is a reminder not to over-complicate what it is to be a leader.


About the author

WO1 Jason Moriarty is the Regimental Sergeant Major of 12th/16th Hunter River Lancers in NSW.


Disclaimer

Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

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