What is a real leader? Real leaders listen.

I am passionate about high performance leaders and high performance organizations.

Real leaders do the right things for the right reasons.  They model the behaviors they seek.  They have followers.  They have and share vision.  They build strength around them and, in turn, attract the strong.  They think strategically.  They allow themselves to grow and change, creating a culture where others can grow and change.  The list of attributes could go on and on – and most people would identify many of the same “traits of a leader” if asked.  Why, then, do good leaders seem so rare?

Because they are.  Because it is a combination of natural traits and learned behaviors, and few people manage to put those two together.  Over time, I would like to explore what makes someone a real leader – a high performance leader.  I plan to look at high performance organizations as well, but let’s start with the leader.  And let’s start with listening.

Natural leaders – yes, I believe in natural leaders – learn early in life that people want to know what they think in a given situation.  They are encouraged to speak up, early and often.  Yet good leaders – and, to a greater extent, great leaders – learn the power of listening.

A year ago, I had the good fortune to meet Bob Hambright, recently retired CEO of construction giant Balfour Beatty US.  One of the best things about my work is that it gives me an excuse to talk about leadership with real leaders – and Bob had been strongly recommended to me as a real leader.  We met in  Founders Hall, where Bob quietly and unassumingly waited for me at a table near Starbucks.  Balfour Beatty had just finished the Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte and Bob watched as cranes – essentially his cranes – continued to work on the adjacent Bank of America property.  We talked about leadership and high performance organizations, about the value of quality people at all levels.  We talked about the best dry cleaning in town and we talked about our children, good and bad choices each of us had made – and then we talked some more about leadership.  Nearly two hours passed quickly and we went our separate ways, agreeing to some future unspecified meeting.

Afterward, I realized that I felt important – not self-important, just important.  Like my opinions and contributions mattered – yet I had just finished meeting with someone whose accomplishments make mine look pale in contrast.  How could that be?

Bob, like many outstanding leaders before him, has the ability to make you feel like the most important person in the room.  He does this in a genuine way – it cannot be faked.  His method?  Listening.  He really listened to what I had to say, and let me do much of the talking.  I suppose I should be embarrassed, because great executive coaches should also be great listeners – but I am not afraid to say that I was with someone who modeled what I can only aspire to.  I have heard others talk about this same feeling, in the aftermath of time spent with a real leader – real leaders are not afraid to let others feel important.  Real leaders are not afraid to let others be important.

Real leaders listen.