Hear Now Leadership: Going Beyond Just Listening

Leadership is more than just the techniques someone employs; it’s about what someone believes, what they see, how they respond, how they are in the world.

No, this isn’t another article about the importance of listening to others (which of course is important.) It is about attentionally hearing—going beyond just listening. Which can lead to a different approach for living and leading a more mindful and effective life—a method for increasing perception to be able to note and then enlist subtle, often missed cues.

Sure, there are many sitings for learning to really see and developing strong vision. Makes sense for getting timely information, better planning and decision-making. Especially in times of high stress, where attention tends to tunnel-vision narrow, it’s all too easy to miss a lot (have you ever frantically searched for keys or a critical paper that’s right in front of you?) As well as noticing what’s around you to maximize safety.

In a complementary manner, surround hearing is as critical to successful leadership. Being able to tune in to the surround sound of what’s going on in the moment—both to equipment and, even more important, to the “culture” of your company. I’ll explain.

I’ve found that strong leadership always emanates from within. Leadership is more than just the techniques someone employs; it’s about what someone believes, what they see, how they respond, how they are in the world.

As General Norman Schwarzkopf contended, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. And if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” Consistent with this, a prime tenet from internal martial arts is revealed in the expression, “It’s better to be strong inside and weak outside, then weak inside and strong outside.”

In other words, one cultivates power by choosing where to primarily focus; that if you want to develop greater power to make things happen, to change the future, there’s greater leverage in internally developing yourself than it is to prop up your image with others. Martial arts experts rely on mindful practice to improve performance, not on luck or hit-or-miss trials.

So consistently with this “inside-out” mind-set, one way I cultivate inner awareness is by practice listening in increasing concentric spheres with “horizontal hearing.” This means tuning in to what’s around right now. In essence, widening my “peripheral hearing.” Like developing any skill or strength, improving peripheral hearing is akin to lifting weights to boost muscle strength; steadily increasing practice makes you stronger. I can remove “auditory blinders” by taking a few moments, whenever I can, to first close your eyes. This is a means to an end. Ultimately, I want to be able to widen my peripheral hearing AND be able to simultaneously better see around me. But I’d initially suggest closing your eyes in order to reduce the overreliance on visual stimuli that so many of us (including me) rely on by default.

Starting from the inside then moving out, I listen to my internal sounds: First, what does my heartbeat sound like? What is the rhythm of my in-breath then exhalation? Is it smooth and even, like drawing forth a silk thread or does it have jagged moments, with slight hesitations? Are there other sounds my body is making, from stomach growling or rustling arm or leg movements? Do I “hear” conflicting inner voices from worrying or others?

Next, I shift focus towards expanding my auditory sphere: What are the sounds immediately around me? In the same room? Are there steady tones that I’ve been ignoring because I became used to them/took them for granted/below my threshold of awareness? Any intermittent or unusual sounds?

Then, further expanding my hearing spheres: What do I hear outside of the room? Thrum of machinery or traffic? Planes transiting? Distant sounds of people? Are these steady or do they vary? Are these sounds “regular” or unusual? Does the pace change, with rests and beats or is everything regimented and mechanically even? What kind of variations? The more attuned I become to hearing sounds, the better I’ve become at discerning when something begins to go astray, which allows me to intervene at an early level.

When in a room with others, I especially suggest taking a few moments to listen for any sounds of silence, to distinguish between a tense quiet where you can “hear a pin drop” and the silence of engaged focus or even partial content. But again, before you try to listen to others, first listen to yourself. When I’m speaking, is my voice breathy and higher pitched or deeper and more resonant? Thinner or richer? Even or rushed? Are my tones sharper or more even-voiced?

Here’s another effective way I hone controlled attentional hearing: when listening to music, I focus on one instrument—sometimes the guitar, other times percussion—mentally “tuning them up,” following their playing, allowing other instruments and voices to recede into the background. Then I’ll mentally switch to auditorily dial into a different instrument.

These all readily apply to elevating internal leadership abilities. My colleague, Paul McClellan, is both a master change agent and an internal martial arts master. He contends, “The Safety culture you have is not the one you’re seeing.” This inspired me to write about “Changing the Hidden Safety Culture” (google it if interested)—what’s actually going on of which many leaders are unaware. While it might be difficult to “see” the hidden safety culture, it’s often more revealing to hear it. Beyond just the quality of silence mentioned above, what isn’t being said? What are the tones of voice predominantly projected—usually conveying much more about what’s going on than do just the actual words.

Ron Bowles said, “Sometimes we can hear a change—or a hint of a change—before we actually see the change. Some equipment operators and maintenance specialists become so accustomed to the noises that their equipment routinely make that even in loud work environments they can single out a slight change in the equipment’s noise and know what they have to inspect or change.”

Einstein consistently indicated that everything in this world is ultimately energy and movement. Safety professionals already know that sound is a form and expression of energy (mostly to guard against overexposure.) But being able to better attend to surround sound is too often overlooked. I’ve found, and hope you will as well, that developing concentric spheres of hearing can improve awareness, mindfulness, discernment and leadership power.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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