When I was an executive at Gap, Inc., I had the tremendous privilege of being chosen to participate in the second ever “Leadership Development Program (LDP)”. It took place over 4 weekends, one each quarter throughout a calendar year. On the very first day, in the very first session, they introduced us to a simple concept that leadership can be distilled down to three words: Listen.Learn.Teach. What was unique about their approach to leadership development was that they were going to expose us to many different leadership models, none of which were espoused to be the definitive and singular model but that these three words were a theory and we were to test out that theory as the program unveiled itself over the course of the year and then beyond.

I have carried this model of leadership ever since. I believe these three words encapsulate about as much as any can regarding the essential qualities a leader must possess and demonstrate to be successful at gaining followers and developing other leaders in order to achieve an organization’s objectives or their own personal goals. And I have been stress testing this model for more than 20 years.

Let me elaborate in reverse order:

  • Teaching is a fundamental precept in society. Organizations are no different. They must have leaders who have knowledge, experience, skills and the ability to articulate in order to move forward. Teaching is a proxy for development and mentorship, without which organizations cannot grow, talent remains stagnant and turnover is crippling. People want the chance to learn and grow from their bosses and mentors. If there is a meaningful effort to develop and nurture the talent in an organization, it becomes a competitive advantage not to mention stability and engagement.
  • Learning is the inverse of teaching. Without the willingness to learn, one cannot teach and vice versa. Learning demonstrates openness, curiosity and above all, humility. In this era of accelerating change and technological wizardry, leaders have no choice but to read the wind, analyze data, commit to dialogue and ensure their antennae are held high at all times in order to set direction or alter a current course.
  • The most important aspect of this approach – and to be honest any leadership approach regardless – is the ability to listen. There is a reason we have two ears and only one mouth – so that, as a rule of thumb, we listen twice as much as we speak. Listening is a learned skill. Period. It takes patience, concentration, empathy, presence and honesty. In order to be an active listener, one genuinely has to care about what another person has to say yet it is not a requirement to have to agree with everything that is said. It is a fundamental aspect of human nature that we all want to be heard. It does not mean that leaders have to do exactly what they are being told. However, if people genuinely feel that their leaders are truly listening to what is being said and are truly understood, then frustration, disgruntlement and acrimony all dissipate, even if those speaking do not get their way all the time. Listening skills are the pre-eminent skill sets any leader must possess as it enables the “Learn” and the “Teach” aspects to sustain and create any meaningful impact.

This is the lesson I learned over 20 years ago at LDP (and went on to teach subsequent groups going through the program). It all came roaring back to me during this week’s Election 2016 events. I believe all of us need to brush up on our listening skills in order for us to properly learn and teach, which will then allow us to lead in a more inspiring and effective manner for all.