Leadership Power in Listening

How a case of laryngitis helped me find my voice and grow as a leader
by Deb Gabor

As a brand strategist, author and public speaker, I rely upon my voice and storytelling ability to make a living. I’ve observed that my interpersonal communication style is less 1:1 and more “broadcast” in nature. I get in a room full of people, position myself directly in the center, and hold court. At a leadership conference featuring 10-hour days of training and intense strategy sessions for 1,500 member leaders and staffers of a global organization of chief executives of private companies, I lost my voice … and, at the same time, found it. Along the way, I learned how developing deep emotional connections with individuals and practicing the art of followership can contribute to my growth as a leader.

About two days into the conference, I conceded defeat to a case of laryngitis that rendered me mute. Unable to speak above a whisper, I carried around a handwritten sign detailing my name, my role and my hometown. Without my voice, I could no longer rely upon my trademark extrovert friendliness and ability to get a conversation going among strangers. I couldn’t raise my hand to ask questions that make me look smart to the rest of the room. I couldn’t make insightful observations that position me as an expert in my field. Instead of the center of attention, I was an audience member, skirting the fringes of conversational groups. Instead of a speaker, I was a listener. Instead of a leader, I was a follower.

During my unintentional silent retreat, I came face to face — or rather, mouth to ear — with fascinating people with whom I may have never had a conversation. I whispered in people’s ears, drawing them into my personal space so I could get my points across. Even though I could hear them fine, my new acquaintances reciprocated by leaning in and whispering in my ear, instantly forming intimate bonds. There’s something about feeling a stranger’s breath on your face that makes you dispense with traditional pleasantries and small talk. Through these deep, one-on-one conversations, I learned about other CEOs’ joys, fears and vulnerabilities. I listened closely to their observations about the frenzied conference activity going on around us. We talked about global politics, employees, taxes, our kids, relationships. We formed bonds that normally take businesspeople years to nurture. I listened; I learned and I was inspired.

For about four days I practiced a type of leadership I’ll call “followership.” The business world has validated my compulsion to speak up and assume responsibility for the strategies and tasks that I ignorantly thought everyone else was incapable of. As a result of my unrelenting desire to assert my authority over everything, I missed the fact that there are others who are capable and desirous of owning and doing things. Most of them are smarter and better than I.

In my life as an extrovert with a loud, confident voice and a healthy ego, I did most of the talking — closing off conversational threads and ideas coming from others. I learned that much of my leadership style is based upon being a hero and feeding my own ego. And that has been at the expense of some really worthwhile relationships and ideas.

I had two big “aha” insights from my voice loss:

My assumption that the state of leadership is a lonely existence is largely incorrect. It really doesn’t have to be. Any loneliness I have felt as a leader has been self-inflicted. The “holding court” style of communication has blocked me from developing vital and meaningful relationships with other humans (employees, colleagues, clients, mentors, friends) that have the power to inspire and nourish me in ways I never thought possible.

No one can (or should) lead all the time. Followership is the other side of leadership. Followership is the ability to take direction, to enthusiastically support a program, to be part of a team and to deliver on promises. The concept of followership doesn’t get a lot of airtime because being a follower isn’t fun or sexy. No one really teaches it in business school, and it certainly isn’t trumpeted as a key to sustainable business success. But followership delivers great rewards. Sitting back and letting others share their ideas, strategies and responsibility for executing lets creativity flourish and empowers other people to grow as leaders themselves.

I have since returned to my day job and regained my speaking voice. But I am letting others step up to be in charge, putting my voice and my ego in check, with great positive impact in my business.

Deb Gabor is the author of Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything. She is the founder of Sol Marketing, which has led brand strategy engagements for organizations that range from international household names like Dell, Microsoft and NBC Universal to digital winners like Allrecipes, Cheezburger, HomeAway and RetailMeNot, and dozens of early-stage tech and digital media titans. 

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