Listening as a Leader

Learning who to listen to is just as important as learning how to listen.

In a world of unlimited resources, self-proclaimed experts, and incredible access through technology to information, discerning which voices to listen to can be a difficult task for a any leader. In the current postmodern situation, many emerging adults have developed a hyper-awareness of the limited scope of their own perspective. They realize the deep, contextual limits of their own worldview.

This is especially true for young leaders, many of them having become paralyzed by the habits, perspectives, and traditions that they have inherited. They realize that they’ve spent their early life cultivating a certain perspective and are aware that theirs only one way of seeing the world, one lens, one perspective.

There are a lot of different filters to understand and perceive reality. Rooted in their geographical location, experiences of race, economic situation, education, religious experience, access to information and more, young leaders are often aware of the finiteness of their own perspective. In a world of complexity and unlimited access to information, who to listen to and trust is an difficult problem which can be an impediment to faithful leadership and barrier to thoughtful discernment in times of difficulty.

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Time Limits

Perhaps a primary means of learning who to listen to can be understood by first embracing a thorough awareness of the finitude of life. We have to learn a simple truth: I am not God. In a larger American culture that embraces the notion that knowledge is power, many leaders often believe they can continue to add, multiply, and consume everything while never missing out on another aspect of life, work, family, fun, other perspectives, experience, etc.

Learning who to listen to becomes a priority when one becomes aware of their limited time and their belief in the myth of unlimited consumption of information has become disrupted. In an article called The Unlikely Writer from Harvard Magazine, Elizabeth Gudrais explores the work of surgeon-turned-writer Atul Gawande by describing his learning process for listening as: “Gawande displays a willingness to be influenced by people he respects, and to recognize good ideas when he finds them.” Learning how to listen is dependent on discerning who one should be influenced by.

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Shared Leadership

A second way to learn who to listen to is practicing shared leadership. Perhaps one of the roles of Christian leaders in various vocations is to both model and bear witness to the limited perspectives and finiteness in such a way that those apprenticing as disciples might learn what is looks like to discern good ideas. Dismantling the myth of unlimited time to appropriate unlimited resources is essential in helping new leaders develop their own perspectives. And that dismantling may help free leaders from the paralysis that often happens when faced with the choice of who to follow.

One of the great contributions to this conversation comes from JR Woodward and Dan White Jr. in their book Church as Movement when they describe how institutions should cultivate a polycentric view of leadership in contract to a flat or hierarchical approach. They write:

Instead of a solo approach to leadership, leadership is shared…The beauty of polycentric leadership is that it includes a relational group of people who learn to share responsibility, engaging in both leading and following, giving time for each leader to be on mission. Polycentric leadership models the interrelations of the Trinity, an interdependent, communal, relational, participatory, self-surrendering and self-giving approach to leadership.

Amidst the deafening noise of unlimited media, voices, and access to most any information, polycentric leadership teaches us how to slow down enough to listen and embrace the finitude of our experience through the trust born out of relationships. Leading, at its heart, is a shared experience that is best done through a humble willingness to listen well.

Embracing a Posture of Humility

Lastly, learning who to listen to will involve a posture of humility. Learning who to listen to will require us to stop trying to universalize our experiences over and against one another and instead seek a more diverse expression of discipleship.

There is a beautiful turn of phrase from the early leaders at the center of early Christianity writing to Paul and Barnabas who are chasing after God who is creating new missional outposts. The early apostles write to the new expressions of church about what practices they should share with the traditional expressions of church and they say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…(Acts 15:28, NIV)” and then listed some basic practices they should share together.

But at the heart of their response is a humility that is rooted in a deep listening. It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit. There is an acknowledgement that even in what the apostles are about to ask is rooted in a deep listening to the requests from the new expressions of church and from the Spirit.

They are speaking from a posture of listening. Learning who to listen to is dependent upon a realization that our particularity of place, education, race, nationality, family, neighborhood, etc. should help us develop a greater humility and reduce the pronouncements and sweeping generalizations that keep people in boxes.

When we embrace our finitude, practice shared leadership and cultivate a posture of humility, we develop some of the necessary habits that help us to imagine a shared future. Learning who to listen to involves a profound humility, submission to one another and a willingness to receive.

There is an ocean of noise and knowing who you can listen to is difficult. But, when we learn how to listen and who to listen to, we begin to realize that the particularity of our stories is not a curse but a blessing. For we are learning how to hear the voice of the Spirit at work in our neighborhoods and to speak with a humility that bears witness to hope of God.

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Josh Hayden

Josh Hayden

Josh Hayden is the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Ashland, VA. Josh studied leadership and organizational change while writing Creative Destruction: Towards a Theology of Institutions to receive his Doctor of Ministry at Duke Divinity School. He’s also the author of Sacred Hope, a book designed to foster conversation about the role of hope in our lives. Josh currently serves on the V3 Board of Directors. You can read more by Josh at his blog.
Josh Hayden

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