At a speaking engagement recently I met a man who is almost completely deaf. He told me that the most important leadership quality is the ability to listen. Coming from anyone else this would seem to be an obvious statement, almost a cliché. For him, it is not.
He expressed to me that even with his hearing impairment he understands people very well when he is speaking to them face-to-face and one-on-one. Once a conversation grows to include even one additional person, however, he can understand only about 15% of what’s being said. (Do those of us with no hearing impairment ever do much better?)
As I was talking with him I noticed myself paying very careful attention to how I expressed myself. I took greater care to be clear, to articulate and to enunciate. I took greater care to check for understanding. I became more thoughtful in listening to his responses and questions because I didn’t want to miss anything; because I wanted him to know that I was fully present.
I did that with him because it was obvious I needed to. I did that because without intention, attention and focus from both of us our interaction would not be successful. What would happen if I brought that same recipe of consideration to every conversation? What would happen if we all did?
He went on to tell me that he had recently declined an invitation to assume a leadership role in an organization he supports because he couldn’t imagine how a person with a hearing impairment so severe could effectively lead others. My heart sank.
I told him that any organization would be fortunate to experience his leadership; to learn how to truly listen to one another through his example and necessity. I don’t think I changed his mind. What he requires to be effective as a communicator is the intimacy, connection and consideration of a thoughtful face-to-face interaction. Sadly, wise to the world as he is, he knows that what he needs is too prohibitive, too time-intensive, too slow. And so he opts out.
I understand completely why, under the circumstances, he doesn’t want to lead. What he doesn’t know, however, is that through his influence on me he already has.