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Education Opinion

Leaders Need the Wisdom of Owls

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 07, 2015 2 min read
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Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking. - Bernard M. Baruch

It is not uncommon when focusing on good communication to think of it as an exchange...something that comes from us to others or others to us. Communication is related to how things are said, what medium is used...verbal or written words, personally or in a group, memo, email, letter, webpage, blog, article, phone call and so on. Word choice, tone, pacing, and intention are aspects of communication. But, we contend the best attribute for a school leader to develop as a good communicator is that of listening.

Poised to communicate as teachers and leaders, we operate from a frame of reference that defined us as teachers and tellers, communicators of information; we are outputters in the eyes of most. To shed that description, listening must be incorporated as a most essential leadership attribute.”The essence of leadership is to shift the inner place from which we operate both individually and collectively” (Scharmer. p.11).

Scharmer also identified four basic types of listening: downloading, factual listening, empathetic listening, and generative listening. Without thinking, the first two may be automatic. When we listen with an ear toward confirming what we already know, we are downloading. When we listen for differences from what we already know, we are factually listening. But, when we begin developing empathetic listening, we engage in a dialogue that “connects us with another person or living system” (pp. 11-12). Scharmer defines the deepest type of listening as generative, and it is a rare thing.

...listening from the emerging field of the future...where our work focuses on getting our (old) self out of the way in order to open a space, a clearing, that allows for a different sense of presence to manifest. You realize that you are no longer the same person you were when you started the conversation...(p. 13).

Collaboration and connecting with colleagues has been accelerated through the access made available through the Internet. But if you’ll notice...connections and collaboration are mainly between the like-minded or the mutually interested. We are naturally attracted to those who are like us and with whom we tend to agree; liberals with liberals, conservatives with conservatives, those who support the Common Core and those who do not.

In order to move organizations forward, to create new coalitions, develop visions and strategies to build the future as it emerges, generative listening is required of the leader. It is through this type of listening, the speaker is respected and the listener, him or herself, can be changed. Do we want to win the battle or define the playing field, be the best at the moment or anticipate the future? All are roles leaders can choose but those that demand more than strength and strategy are ones in which listening can help. Perhaps, that’s the truth in this old nursery rhyme...

A wise old owl lived in an oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

- Author unknown

Scharmer, C.O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.