The #1 Leadership Skill and Best Gift You Can Give to Those You Serve and Lead and Yourself and Now More Than Ever: Present Listening By John Hackett.Ed.D

 Alvin Toffler, in his 1970 book Future Shock, unknowingly described our world today in 2020.

He defined future shock as “dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” this is an apt description of how many feel today.we all feel anxiety, stress, burnout, and uncertainty and isolation. In times like these, people look to their leaders to feel safe, valued, trusted, and confident of moving forward. The University of North Carolina Head Football Coach  Mack Brown displayed this in an interview for ESPN with Scott Van Pelt in response to the question, will your players and coaches feel safe to come back to campus? Coach Brown replied, “I have personally talked to everyone, one of our student-athletes, and staff members. They are all returning to campus for practice. They all told me they knew we would keep them safe and take care of them” Coach Brown had connected and listened to everyone involved in returning to Fall Football Practice. Effective leadership and listening while always requirements of any organizations’ success are now a lifeline to their survival and re-emergence out of this time moving forward.

Listening is a foundational skill leader can develop or enhance. This skill can build people up and then get things done and is a gift to those they serve in any organization and themselves.

That present for everyone is for the leader to develop and enhance their skills in listening to be a  present listener.

         Present listening is an intentionally learned, developed, and practiced skill of being present and focused in all situations. Listening is contrary to many people’s beliefs; listening is not a natural skill. The level of listening intentionally developed by a leader has a great effect, positive or negative, in how their organizations thrive or wilt in these times. Communication experts like Stephan Covey report there are five levels of listening. You probably have experienced and probably practiced each one at some time.  

To illustrate this point, consider this scenario as it plays through each of the five levels of listening.

You are hosting the weekly virtual team meeting for your sales unit. You have a great group of energetic, innovative salespeople who have done well despite the shutdowns restrictions. You and your team discuss and develop two company changes that would enhance service to customers and have a benefit of increase sales after the shutdowns are eased. These proposals seem to be practical and useful ways to serve your customers easy to implement and a way to move forward. You agree to share the plan with your team leader on the scheduled weekly virtual report meeting later today and report back.  

Ignoring Listening

Your team leader gives you no clue they are listening and is not paying any attention. They are making no eye contact and appear to be looking down most of the time, maybe at Tic Toc clips. They appear to be disinterested and preoccupied.

Pretend Listening

Your team leader is nodding, smiling, and maybe shaking their head as you talk. The leader asks no questions about the sales and recruiting reports or the two proposals. You can tell that they are not interested in being there even though they are nice.

Selective Listening

The team leader responds only to certain items that catch their attention like your sales and recruiting numbers interrupting with a direction of how to do better for next week. The team leader often talks over you. The team leader cuts off your presentation of the two proposals and says they will “get back to you later.” The meeting then abruptly ends. Your team leader says they have another more urgent meeting. This is the shortest meeting you have ever had with this person

Attentive Listening

The Team leader nods smiles and may make fleeting eye contact. They appear to be listening to you and paying attention. The team leader even asks some questions about the sales and recruiting numbers. Their only remark to the two proposals is, “we will see.”You sense the leader is “going through the motions.”They are not listening for understanding or really caring about what you said. You know they will do nothing with the proposal.

Present Listening

Your Team leader welcomes you and asks how the family is doing and thanks you for being at the meeting. The team leader displays they are 100% present to you. They even get up and close a door to keep out noise from the kids playing in the next room out. The team leader apologizes for the interruption, saying I wanted to make sure I listen to you 100% displaying a commitment to listening and you. The team leader maintains eye contact and leans in to listen and takes notes. The team leader displays a learner’s genuine curiosity by asking open-ended questions(What, How When and Where). You notice the leaser pauses before responding and listens intently as you talk. The leader asks mirroring questions using the words you use to demonstrate they are present and listening to the entire report. They reflect and summarize to understand the information and what you would like done with the information. The team leader responds to the two proposals with energy and curiosity, asking questions, listening, and reflecting. The team leader explains the process to make a change like these two and tells you she will pass them along tonight and ask for a quick corporate response. The Team Leader summarizes both parts of the meeting, the plan to go forward, and asks if they got everything. The leader asks if they missed anything. The team leader, thank you for the report and proposals and staying on the call longer than planned.

Reflection questions:

1. What were the feelings communicated about you by your team leader during each level of listening?

2. What were the feelings communicated about your team by your team leader during each level of listening?

3. What would you report back to your team about the proposals possibilities as communicated by your team leader in each level of listening?

4. Which leader would you reach out to, model , work hard for and support based on their level of listening?

5. Do you display most if not all of these listening levels from time to time?

It is not hard to guess we would all like to work with a present listener leader listed in the level  5 scenario.

It also isn’t hard to guess you would like to be a level  5 Present Listener. We are human and probably have listened to all the various levels or know people, not us, of course, who predominantly use many of the other listening levels. The good news is you can learn and practice to become a level, 5 present listener. Leadership expert Art Petty notes to improve your level of listening does take intentional hard work to address noisy behaviors that interfere with listening and learning skills to enhance your skills and a plan.

The A.B.C.S. of becoming a level 5 present listener leader are;

A – Acknowledge the listening level you are in predominantly. Accept your responsibility to change.  

 B- Behaviors: What noisy behaviors interfering with being a level 5 listener?  HINT, Look at the levels 1-4 scenarios and ask which are me? What level 5 present listener skills you want to learn. HINT, Reread the level 5 present Listener scenario and underline the behaviors you would like to improve. Pick one to three behaviors to work on. Note your reflections at the end of the day and your plan for the beginning of the day. This bookend approach can reinforce your learnings and plans going forward.

C – Commit to a plan to work on the behaviors. Connect with a coach or mentor who will provide you honest feedback on this journey.

S – Stick with it. All behavior change requires practice, failure, learning, and improvement. Nicki Keohohou of the Direct Selling World Alliance notes that practice makes permanent

This journey will have ups and downs and learnings. The leader who has the courage and discipline to stay with the journey to becoming a level 5 present listener using the A.B.C.S. will see many presents. Your team will have the present of being built up, feeling valued, trusted, unified, and feel they are moving forward. The team will be able to use deeper thinking and work together to make the pivots needed to thrive. You, as the leader working to become a level 5 present listener, will have enhanced relationships in all facets of your life. Your becoming more of a present listener is genuinely a gift that keeps on giving.

Stick with it you, your team, and all you love, serve, and lead will remember how this change you as a leader as we go forward.

The present will be remembered long after COVID19 is faded memory


Covey, Stephen R. (1980) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon Schuster, New York, N.Y.

Keohohou, N.and Keohohou, G. (2010)Build It Big The Direct Selling World Alliance. Kailua, HI

Petty, A.Webinar “Fierce Listening” May 20 ,2020

Toffler, A(1970) Future Shock Random House , New York, N.Y.

VanPelt,S.ESPN SVP sports Center Interview with Mack Brown,


John Hackett
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