Leading by Listening


By Daniel Vestal
We live in a fragmented and noisy world that is polarized in almost every way imaginable. People are stressed and struggling. Families are dysfunctional. Cultures are in conflict. Nations are at war. Even in religious circles, places where harmony and peace should prevail, there is discord and division. It is in this context that the need for leadership is greater than ever. Almost everyone agrees that “for such a time as this” we need leaders in church and society who, by example and action, can lead us to a better way of life.

I agree with the common sentiment that we need leaders, but perhaps I would disagree with the common sentiment as to what kind of leaders we need. The best leaders are not necessarily experts. They are not necessarily the loudest voices or most self-assured with their experience and expertise. My conviction is that now more than ever we need leaders who have learned to listen and who act only out of having listened. We need leaders who themselves are not fragmented and noisy but are centered and creative. Their words and actions come from a deep place within themselves and within the community they serve.

This kind of leadership is based on the presupposition that needed wisdom is available, but that it is a gift to be received and not a goal to be achieved. It is given, but it is given only to those who learn to listen. Knowing how to respond to people, to need, to crises comes from learning to listen and listening to learn. Knowing when and how to speak, when and how to take initiative comes from learning to listen and listening to learn.

Listening is more than fact finding and gathering information, although it surely includes both. Listening involves reason and thought, logic and deduction, observation and analysis. But it also involves intuition, humility, humor, silence. Listening is discernment and discovery characterized by mystery, wonder and amazement. Listening doesn't discount hard study and thorough discussion, but it includes subtle and spiritual dimensions that are equally important.

Listening not only admits that there is a lot we don't know. But it also admits that there is a lot we don't know that we don't know. The Spirit of God, that transcends our limitations, is active and available to us. The loving Presence of the Divine is accessible, not to be manipulated but to be discerned. This dimension to leadership is not magic or some kind of “hocus-pocus.” But it is “inspired” resulting in unforeseen possibilities being opened up and new kinds of solutions being offered.

Listening is personal, but it is not private. No one person is infallible, so we need a listening community that nourishes and supports this approach to leadership. A listening community also functions as a system of “checks and balance” holding leaders accountable and preventing abuse. Listening in community creates a culture of interdependence and shared responsibility without diminishing individual initiative.

Listening involves risk. Leaders who listen must by necessity demonstrate their willingness to be vulnerable and transparent. They give up the privileged position of omniscience. They also risk being wrong and the consequences that result from mistaken discernment. This can be frightening, especially when people expect leaders to have all the answers or be an authority on all things. The risk of leading by listening is real, so this approach is not for the faint hearted. It takes faith and courage.

To lead by listening is based on several theological presuppositions. The first is that God is actually present in our lives and in the world. God cares passionately about what is happening. God is active and engaged in recreating and redeeming all things through Jesus Christ. God calls us to join in a divine mission of renewal and re-creation. God's Spirit is able to communicate with us as individuals and as communities, and when the Spirit communicates the Spirit also empowers. This Trinitarian understanding of God and God's involvement with the real circumstances and contingencies of life shapes our understanding and practice of leadership.

It means, first of all, that our most fundamental attitude is one of RESPONSE – to God, to God's mission,to God's Spirit – which is counter-intuitive and counter culture to contemporary society. The world around us is literally shouting, “Do something,” or “Do something bold” or “Do something quick.” There is little or no consideration of divine providence and grace. There is little or no thought of listening for a divine call or divine guidance. To suggest that the solutions to problems are beyond our grasp but not beyond God's grasp is foolishness to many.

This is not to suggest that God gives a blueprint for every problem or that we sit around and wait for handwriting on the wall or action must always be postponed until there is agreement. But it is to argue for a basic disposition toward leadership that presupposes God's involvement, by intentional and continuous acts of listening. It is to argue that we “pay attention” in very personal and purposeful ways to what the Spirit of God might be saying to us. Simply stated, we view leadership as response to divine presence and call.
Originally published for the Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership at Mercer University.

Dr. Daniel Vestal is the Professor of Leadership Studies at McAfee School of Theology.