Listening as Leadership


In our polarized society, we need a starting place for rediscovering
each other. I believe that we all share the essential things: love of
family, courage in adversity, sustaining faith, hope for the future.
Living stories [are] told from the inside out.  Windows into the
hearts and minds of people.

David Hughes Duke

I just got off the phone with a man in Georgia.  He contacted me because we both have this thing about listening.  And we’ve both experienced in our own lives and heard from other people how listening is in dangerously short supply.

David Hughes Duke  has spent a career listening with video tape.  He has listened so that the stories of the people who speak to him may become woven into the fabric of American culture via documentary film.  He asked me about my experience with EX:Change, with 100 Voices.

I told him about the things in this blog, from 2009 forward – about how the people of this country, when they spoke about change and what endures, held very similar hopes and dreams about peace, work, their children’s wellbeing – and thinking especially of the children, about clean water and air.  I told him these voices from across such a vast range of experience, circumstance and political position were credible to me because each one dropped pretense and caution when they determined that I was listening – that I really wanted to know how the world looked from their perspective.

David Duke said he’d experienced precisely the same thing, but with video documentary work.  This clip is one example.  People have stories to tell.  Like David acknowledges with the name of his business, the stories are alive – they are life, and they are living.  To tell stories requires listeners; it requires reciprocity of listening in return.  And with listening, we agreed, the necessity for fearing each other can recede to mere whispers, and may eventually die away.

Writing now, on the coattails of my conversation with David Hughes Duke, I know more about what I’ve been calling high-character leadership.  David Duke leads with high character as he applies his talent and heart to listening.  But that leadership is also evident in every person he interviews.  It is evident, too, in each of the 100 Voices in 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change.   Leadership is not exclusive to CEOs, to managers, to elected officials or members of the judiciary, to teachers or principals.  Each of those actors is vital to success, to economic and public wellbeing, and none of them is effective without the action and personal leadership of each of us.

This can sound like what my friend Jon Waterhouse, the Executive Director of the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council (see last week’s blog) calls, “another Kumbaya” moment.  When you work, as Jon does, with situations that repeatedly reveal the link between human dignity, wisdom and relationship  and global problems – in Jon’s case, cleaning the water of the world’s rivers – you run the risk of being trivialized as just about the “feel good.”

Here’s the thing.  Rigor and thoughtful action toward positive social change may, in fact, feel good.  It doesn’t have to be regimented, painful, or even inconvenient – and even when it is those things, it may feel good anyway.  Furthermore, it takes a level of courage to be in relationship, to speak wisdom from one’s dignity, to listen to the living stories of people who make sense of the world in unfamiliar ways.  That listening, that relationship is vital to action toward clean water and air and all manner of other solutions.

What David Duke and I have seen is the deep experience and understanding each of us has had revealing listening as leadership.   Listening is not the only thing needed for leadership, but it may be far more essential than leaders of recent centuries have demonstrated.

So here it is, back to us, to check it out or ourselves.  To watch and see if and how listening shows up in people we recognize as having high character – and how people of high character lead.

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