If A Leader Could Only Do One Thing…

I was speaking to a group of about 100 university students on leadership, more specifically about the leadership practices with the greatest return on investment. At the end of the session one of the students approached and asked, “I understand that the most effective leaders do several things well, but if you had to choose just one, what would it be?”

Of course very little in life can be boiled down to one thing. Even the Lord, when asked to identify the most important commandment, had to provide two. Anyone who has led is well aware that there are several important practices. In this space, I’ve written, for instance, about the five proposed by authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. I’ve also written about the latest Gallup study on what followers want from leaders as described in Tom Rath and Barry Conchie’s book, Strengths Based Leadership.

So, normally, I would have set down my pipe (I don’t smoke, work with me here), stroked my chin and lectured the student on the folly of thinking the grand topic of leadership could be so limited. But, that’s exactly the kind of question you’re supposed to consider in a university setting, so I gave it some thought and gave her an answer.

But before you see mine (no scrolling), I wonder what you would have said.  When you think about all of the great leaders you have known, is there a thread that ties them together? Is there a single practice that rises to the surface as you consider their (or your) best skills and practices?

Or, perhaps consider it this way: Is there a particular practice that is simply indispensable for effective leadership? Something no leader can miss? Not all leaders must be great orators to be effective, not all are necessarily highly organized. Some can’t be described as “visionary” others aren’t strong strategists. But is there something that all either do or must do?

While I wouldn’t ever say leadership is only a matter of doing one thing, I did answer the question. And, although I’ve had conversations with those since who vehemently disagree with me, which makes for interesting and fun conversations, I stand by my answer.



I chose to cite listening because I believe empathic/active listening almost always deepens understanding. And there is no true communication without understanding. Highly regarded communications writer Peter Nulty (Fortune, McKinsey) wrote, “Of all the skills of leadership, listening is the most valuable and one of the least understood. Most captains of industry listen only sometimes, and they remain ordinary leaders. But a few, the great ones, never stop listening. That’s how they get word before anyone else of unseen problems and opportunities.”

But it’s also more practical and not quite as “soft” as that.

Listening is a practice with high efficiency and high return on investment, at the risk of sounding coldly clinical. Why? Perhaps because listening speaks.

Listening says something.

Just the act of taking the time to listen – to truly listen – to those you lead is one of the most powerful (if vocally silent) ways a leader can “speak.” We sometimes think talking is the best way to convey information, to provide instruction or to garner trust. And oh can we talk. But the opposite is often the truth. You send strong messages when you listen empathically, and they are often more powerful than anything you can say. In my teaching I often encourage the art of “strategic shutting up”.

In the coming posts, I’ll unpack a little of what I’ve learned about listening – what it is, what it’s not, and how it can be most artfully, respectfully and effectively accomplished.

“To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow our mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.” Peter Senge

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