The Socratic Method of Leading or Leading With Your Ears

“Management is about persuading people to do things they do not because they want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could do.” Steve Jobs

While it is rarely as simple as a short speech, inspiration can and should be part of the long-term activities of the coach/manager. Inspiration can take the form of speeches, deeds, and stage setting. Part of this inspirational role is asking the right questions. The desire to answer questions seems to be a relatively strong human thing. It forces those asked not only to think but also to seek information in order to get to the right solution. By asking tough questions to talented people, you just motivate them to solve the problem, just like Socrates did.

“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears—by listening to them.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk

The ability to ask the right questions is directly related to the ability of the manager to listen. Note that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is generally a passive, physical function, but listening is active, cognitive activity. Listening requires the person to actively categorize, and assign meaning to what is being heard. The best managers in the successful organization are not just good listeners, but powerlisteners.

Powerlisteners are those who can give extreme, focused attention to what is being heard. Furthermore, it is quite easy for any listener to begin judging what is being heard before the entire statement is concluded. This can be problematic because during the time the listener is formulating his or her response; he or she is missing some of what is being said or is at least unable to give the final portion of the statement its due attention. However, powerlisteners powerlisten, which means they are able not only to focus their attention, but also able to keep an open mind and listen to the complete thought before they begin their analysis. This is a skill that can be trained. It is a special manager that can turn listening into a competitive advantage. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, when commenting on the skills of P&G’s CEO said about Lafley that he is, “an excellent listener.” Immelt invited Lafley to join the GE board in 2002.

Being a powerlistener helps manager keep the flow of new ideas coming from his subordinates in that he or she does not cut them off prematurely.

The Right questions . . .

Well, the exact questions are really situation dependent. However, they should do one, two and/or three things. First and foremost they should be related to helping the subordinate to create value, enough said. Secondly, they should cause the subordinate to stretch. The questions should cause the subordinate to go beyond his or her previous experience or thoughts. This stretching is important for personal growth and can also lead to additional creativity. Finally, the questions should help motivate the person. One person cannot really directly motivate another person. This is also true for managers (and especially bosses). The manager can do two major things: 1) Is understand the factors that drive the subordinate and 2) Create the context.

Understanding the personal drivers of a subordinate is closely related the person’s goals. It is part of the responsibility of the manager to know what personal goals his subordinates have. In fact with respect to the professional goals, as already stated the manager should help set those. But the manager should also know as much as possible about the individual’s personal goals as well, because they obviously have a significant impact on an individual’s behavior. The top organizations wants its employed talent to work as close to their peak output as possible, given this it is imperative for the manager to know. This does not mean that the manager needs to get involved in the minutia of everyone’s life, but those issues that are having or may have an impact on the individual’s value creating ability are important.

In addition what a manager can do is create the context. Creating the context means to set the conditions that allow the talent to motivate themselves. As I have been trying to emphasize in this chapter, the managers can do this by challenging, facilitating, and coaching.

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