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Jack Barentsen

Every Leader Listens!

So all leaders listen, but what they listen to makes a dramatic difference.

Photo: Unsplash

Yes. All leaders listen.

The question is: What do they listen to?

Donald Trump in de US, and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands are expert listeners. They have an incredible knack for sensing the fears of many people around them.

They are such good listeners that they have a good sense of how many people are moved by these fears. Or perhaps they are just very smart pollsters, able to assess how to mobilize as large an electorate as possible. Nevertheless, it requires them to listen, and the results show that they listen well.

Angela Merkel and Pope Franciscus are also leaders that listen closely. Merkel listens to the fears that the flood of migrants threatens the social, moral and economic fabric of Germany. She also listens to the lessons of history: significant though the migrant challenge is for affluent European nations, historically speaking it isn’t as formidable as is trumpeted in the media.

Moreover, she listens to the voice of conscience and of her Judeo-Christian heritage, which give her courage to call the nation to hospitality and compassion, and to boldly claim, “Wir schaffen das.”

Franciscus also listens. He listens unmistakably to the voice of history and tradition. But he surprises because he listens to the voice of dissenters and critics. Ironically, Franciscus has every reason to respond in fear and self-protection: secularization, membership decline, clergy scandals and religious extremism threaten his Church deeply.

Yet, he even listens respectfully and compassionately to victims of clergy abuse, and to the concerns of Muslim leaders, while he reminds us of Christ’s compassion as key change agent in this world.

So all leaders listen, but what they listen to makes a dramatic difference.

Some leaders listen only to those who fear and act in self-protection. They identify with those fears and fan them into roaring fury. They seek to embody those fears in a bid for political power. Yet, they only promise to remove every possible cause for these fears.

Fear itself is not the problem; it is the outside enemy that causes the fears. So if immigration is stopped, criminals are deported, and Islam suppressed, the problem will be solved.

It’s a typical leadership strategy: rally against a great enemy ‘out there’, ignore internal problems, and use political power to polarize and suppress, regardless of the long-term cost in terms of violence and extremism. Such listening only serves self-interest.

Other leaders also listen closely to the electorate, but they listen at least as carefully to their moral compass. They follow a moral vision where reconciliation overshadows fear, and where hospitality is driven by self-sacrifice rather than self-protection.

These leaders realize that sometimes we are called to live with our fears, though they take our fears seriously. However, they refuse to sow hatred against ‘outsiders’ as if that would calm our fears. Nor do they simply protect western wealth while ignoring the extreme suffering of millions of refugees. Such listening serves the interests of others as well as of ourselves.

An authentic leader listens to more sources than only the electorate. Such a leader listens to dissenters and critics, and they acknowledge that not all benefit from their leadership.

These contradictory voices are bridged not by simply listening to the majority, but by listening to their moral and religious compass. Without such a compass, listening is merely a clever power strategy.

If you are a leader, you are listening.

The key question is: what are you listening to?

Jack Barentsen is an Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and a steering committee member of ILE.

This blog is part of a blog series on Leadership & Social Ethics, published by the Institute of Leadership and Ethics. For more information, please visit their website.




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