3 Listening Lessons We Can All Use From Political Leadership

A Guest Post from Rose Fass, CEO at Fass Forward.

Many leaders talk a good game. Some have even managed to talk their way to the top. But ironically, there’s one leadership quality that often gets the silent treatment. It’s listening to how the message was received.

Politicians are masters of message discipline. They speak in sound bites, which gives repeatable expression to their ideas. Next, they listen to focus groups, surveys, polls, and constituents to see how their message landed with their audience.

Did it create a buzz? Did it move people to action? Did it win them votes? Conveying a message isn’t enough. Leaders need to know how it was perceived and if it was effective in winning over their people. Say what you will about the world of politics, there are at least a few things leadership communicators could learn from political leadership.

The power of real leadership starts with the conversation. You have them every day…and those conversations have a powerful impact on your people and how your company does business…every day. If listening isn’t treated as a critical piece of message discipline, it certainly adds additional meaning to the expression, “He’s all talk.”

Listening Polls

Let’s assume that you lead by carefully crafting concise messages and conveying them with clarity. Then, you move on to the next piece of business. On the other hand, if you take the time to really listen, you’ll get two earfuls of terrific, actionable information. Suddenly, you can hear what your people have been trying to tell you all along. You’ll also have a better grasp of everything from what customers are saying to what’s frustrating your followers.

Listening more carefully to employees and customers can help close those gaps that open up unexpectedly at the intersection of strategy and execution.

Listen to yourself, too. Many leaders talk to themselves. Surprisingly, not enough listen to themselves. Successful leaders need for their ideas, visions, strategies and messages to come across clearly. Listen to what you’re saying. Is it being interpreted as intended? Is everyone on the same page? Are there breakdowns in execution? It all comes down to how your message lands. So be sure to spend more time in the land of listening.

What Gets Heard Equals What Gets Done

Listening is a two-way street. They want you to listen to them. You want them to listen to you. So listen up to these message discipline leadership tactics to ensure that what you say is what gets heard so what you envision is what gets done.

Listen To What You Say

Start with your message. Craft it carefully. Simplify it. Edit it until only the essence has been captured. Distill it down so it only delivers details that frame a solid main idea.

Next, Ask Yourself:

  • Are my expectations presented clearly or have I opened the door to confusion?
  • Will my people know how to pick up where my message left off?
  • Can our cast of corporate characters all see the roles they’re playing in the overall picture?

Listen To What Gets Heard

Hear your people. Ask for feedback. Now, get ready to:

  • Absorb the feedback and take decisive action.
  • Listen to what people are telling you with sensitivity.
  • Address all critical concerns and unmet needs.

Listen to What Gets Done

You delivered your message. You know it was heard. You now want action. Keep listening and continue to:

  • Hold yourself and your people accountable.
  • Monitor results and look for marks that have been missed.
  • Analyze whether your message is aligned with your strategy, company direction and what people are doing.

Three Points to Remember

  1. Message discipline drives operational discipline.
  2. Strategy is validated by execution of the message.
  3. Leaders who don’t listen are missing a lot.
Your Turn: How do you listen for the impact of your messages?
Filed Under:   Communication
Ross Fass
Ross Fass
Rose is the CEO at fassforward consulting group. She blogs about Leadership, Change, Culture and Chocolate Conversations at You can follow her on twitter @rosefass.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

David Tumbarello   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

Thanks for the insights, Rose! I agree that feedback is so valuable to any leader, yet there are often roadblocks keeping someone from receiving feedback. Roadblocks to feedback may include — pride, narcissism, habit, structural power, distance, noise, lack of mechanism to hear feedback, and even the case in which the feedback does not match the expected response of the speaker. As you express in this post, effective communication involves mutual listening & response — and respect. It is a situation in which both parties remove barriers and attempt to be present, honest, and candid. Do we teach this to our children? Do we teach this to our direct reports?

letsgrowleaders   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

David, So agree with you this is is a skill that we do need to inspire and encourage starting with our children (which as you know is one of my favorite topics ;-) Rose, do you have some tips to share?

bill holston   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

wow, what great points:
I really like this:
“Start with your message. Craft it carefully. Simplify it. Edit it until only the essence has been captured. Distill it down so it only delivers details that frame a solid main idea.”
I once did a presentation at a pecha kucha event: 20 slides, 20 seconds a slide. It forced me to be concise, to make every word count, and like a word cloud identified my core message.

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

Bill, Thanks so much. I’ve done that 20 slides, 20 seconds thing as well, we should compare notes. I found it a remarkable exercise in staying concise… so cool that you used a word cloud too… great use of one of the slides. What was your topic? Mine was Yoga and Customer Service, I started with a chant ;-)

bill holston   |   08 February 2014   |

I love that: Yoga and Customer Service! I did a slightly different version here, which was 25 seconds a slide. It was on my work with refugees.

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |  

Bill, Glad you explained the jacket ;-) Seriously, I’m so inspired by your story and the work that you do. All, it’s really worth watching this. I’m also adding it to the LGL facebook page.

Matt McWilliams   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

Love this post! I used to be a political consultant in NC but got out when I realized that I hadn’t slept more than 4 hours in a night in months.

George Bush’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign in Texas was a great example of one of your points on message discipline ( He had four priorities. All he talked about was those four. Nothing else. He stayed on message and upset an incumbent most people thought he couldn’t beat.

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

Matt, I bet you learned a ton from being a political consultant. And… you and I should never talk politics ;-)

Steve Borek   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

I look to see if their eyes are sparkling.

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

Steve, Oh yes….. sparkling eyes are the best.

Terri Klass   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

Listening is so important for leaders to understand what is happening and going on around them.

I would add being aware of our non-verbal cues is also key in listening. I have spoken to people in a face to face conversation and noticed that they may have inappropriate facial expressions to what I am saying. As a result, I really try to think about how I am coming across while listening.

Thanks Karin!

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

Terri, Great add… facial expressions say so much. I also find that my face gives me away a lot. Someone will say, “I can tell you don’t like that idea…” right as I think I’m sitting there really trying to understand it and giving them a chance to explain. We need to watch both sides….

Bill Benoist   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

One of my greatest pet peeves is working with someone who is not only unclear with their directions, but becomes upset when you ask for clarification of the directions. I’ve learned to manage around individuals like these, but they can certainly lower overall engagement within a department.

Thank you for a great read, Rose.

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

Bill, Really great add. I can’t stand that either. I’d always rather someone ask.

Rose Fass   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

Thanks for all the great feedback. Glad to see other leaders are on the same page. And I do agree that starting with our children is a great way to begin growing future leaders.

Karen asked about some tips. When my son was in elementary school I volunteered to join his fourth grade class and facilitate a session on collaboration and conversation. The kids jumped right in and loved it. We created some group projects that were later presented to parents. Several of which were very unhappy that their child did not get individual recognition. The parents of these children sent a message that competing with your peers was far more important than collaborating with them. A competitive spirit is important but I do believe that this type of behavior sets a tone for how someone will interact as an adult; the way they will lead and the conversations they will have.

A number of the children whose parents embraced the program are now working and contributing in as young leaders in diverse fields.

My tip is get involved where you can – you may face resistance but it does make a difference.

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

Rose, Thanks for sharing your story. I can’t believe you had parents react like that. Yikes. You may enjoy this piece.

Rose Fass   |   10 February 2014   |  

Karin, love that article. It’s extremely relevant and has great tips – #8 especially. I’ve done the same thing in my family.

LaRae Quy   |   07 February 2014   |   Reply

Speaking in sound bites is an excellent piece of advice. It provides more clarity, especially when the message is multi-layered. And I don’t think sound bites has anything to do with diminishing attention spans as a result of social media…it’s just a simple, yet effective way to communicate.

I’ve found with speaking and in emails, it’s an easier way to communicate.

Great tips!

letsgrowleaders   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

LaRae, Thanks so much…. agree, the more complex the message, the more we must simplify.

Jon Mertz   |   08 February 2014   |   Reply

Great message, Rose. Thanks, Karin, for highlighting this. Having worked in politics early in my career, the messages here really resonate. Another element that some political leaders do well is traveling around their states and districts and hosting open forums with their constituents. These are always unscripted, at least they used to be. What usually unfolded was honest interaction. Transparency happened. As leaders, engaging in unscripted interactions enables us to see what messages resonate and also continues to test and enhance our listening skills. Great post! Jon

Woody Till   |   10 February 2014   |   Reply

I think some leaders tend to ram their mesage down their subordinates throat regardless of whether the message is understood or not. “Because I say it, it must be true”. Even with peers they try to talk over the other person until that person either agrees or stops trying to add counterpoint. Then the leader can’t understand why they did not get the results they expected. “Listening” to these types of leaders makes them look weak and that maybe they “don’t know everything”. Listening is an art where the leader must make themselves vulnerable and except that the other person may have an insight that the leader has not thought of. After all don’t we all have the same goal…Success.