Title

Shut Up and Listen

A convocation speaker.

 

September 17, 2019
 
 

In 2019, the author was chosen as Faculty speaker of the year at Iona College and asked to speak to the graduating class at Spring Honors Convocation. Below is an excerpt from her remarks.

As honors students you have demonstrated that you have the ability to be the leaders of tomorrow. You are prepared to, as our logo says, “Move the World” and, as our motto instructs, “Fight the Good Fight”.  

So before we send you out to do just that, I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about something we do not talk enough about today; before you begin moving, changing, persuading, fighting the good fight, leading, – it’s critical that you pause, and listen.

Listening is a skill that unfortunately too few of us and far too few of our leaders practice today; and with good reason.

For starters, listening is not easy. In “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership” Steve Sample writes, “The average person suffers from three delusions: (1) that he is a good driver, (2) that he has a good sense at humor, and (3) that he is a good listener.”

Moreover, we live in a time when the political economy encourages us to over-share and we have access to do it. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, breed over-sharers. As of March, 2.38 billion people, 31% of the world’s population, were monthly Facebook users. In the United States, seventy percent of adults regularly use Facebook. Every single one of them has the ability to broadcast what they are doing and thinking within seconds with the push of a button. 

Under the circumstances, it is no wonder there is so little listening going on. And that is a shame, because we need it now more than ever.

When I was an undergraduate, my mentor introduced us to former Senator Howard Baker (R-TN). That name may ring a bell for some of you who are older, he was the ranking minority member of the Senate Watergate Committee, ran for President in 1980, and served as Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff, among other things.  Shortly before he passed, he spoke about the need for leaders who are “eloquent listener.”

“The essence of leadership and service” he said, “is the ability to be an eloquent listener, to hear and understand what your colleagues have to say, what your party has to say, what the country has to say … and then to try to translate that into effective policy.”

A key part of the mission of Iona is to develop leaders, who are committed to engaging the community and making positive and ethical change.

Based on the evidence, the class of 2019 is well situated to do that. The sheer scope of service work those of you being honored here today have done over the last four years is impressive.

What I hope you consider as you leave is that Unfortunately, leadership and service are often and unfortunately narrowly conceived as being all about action, pushing to make necessary change, and trying to persuade others to the righteousness of our cause and quest.

Far too often we forget the importance of pausing and listening before you/we plow ahead.

And it is not enough just to listen to likeminded people – something else which, unfortunately, new technology unfortunately makes far too easy. That is a big mistake.

Listening, particularly to diverse voices, is a habit that the best leaders develop and practice.

I would like to give you two examples from two very different times and places, one that you are undoubtedly familiar with, the other perhaps not.

First the man who sits at the top of almost every list of the best U.S. presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

For those of you who have read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Book “Team of Rivals” or who saw the  film adaptation, you know that part of Lincoln’s genius was he made a concerted effort to surround himself by and listen to those with whom he did not agree.

As Goodwin writes: “By selecting men who he knew disagreed with him or differed from his own platform, he assured himself that he would be confronted with legitimate challenges to his ideas, rather than finding himself in a pool of yes-men.”

This part of the story is important and well-known, but ask yourself why Lincoln’s capacity, inclination, practice, & habit of listening to diverse perspectives at that moment in American history was so important?

It is important because when we truly listen, we are students once again, we learn, we change, we grow, we evolve.

And so let me suggest that the genius of Lincoln was not just that he was the “Listener in Chief,” but as historian Eric Foner says, as a result of listening he grew and changed.

Here was someone who, as Foner notes, ‘had to grow out of his earlier views, which were certainly pretty racist and rather gradualist when dealing with slavery.’ How did he do that? Because he listened to alternative points of view, he sought out and listened to the cries of the abolitionists, social activists, and religious leaders. He met with and listened to Sojourner Truth, Fredrick Douglas, and many others. And he not only listened, but as a result he grew, and this is the essence of his greatness.

Fast forward three quarters of a century and half-way around the world to the subcontinent of India, still under British rule.

There you find another leader, less well-known to many of us in the U.S. but equally important in this regard because he exhibited nearly identical tendencies to Lincoln at a time in his nation’s history that was equally as fraught.

In 1937, Sikander Hyat-Khan, was elected Premiere of the Punjab, making him the highest ranking Muslim leader on the subcontinent. This was at the dawn of World War II, a time when the subcontinent of India was, very much like the US in 1776, fighting for independence from Britain, and also fighting internally as communal tension, particularly between the Muslims and Hindus, reached a fever pitch.

Elected to rule over the second most diverse province, Hyat-Khan did something unprecedented. Very much like Lincoln before him, he appointed a multi-religious cabinet composed of leading Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian leaders. And for seven years, until his untimely death in 1942 this group of leaders from vastly different faiths and with very different beliefs and ideals showed that by listening to diverse views, by being willing to engage with others with whom they vehemently disagreed, they could safely and productively govern the province.

For this reason, every time someone talked about partitioning the subcontinent to create a Hindu and Muslim raj, Hyat-Khan and many of his cabinet members, firmly opposed the idea. For all of those who said partition inevitable, that Hindus and Muslims could never peacefully co-exist, they made the case that it wasn’t – that by listening and compromising people of different faiths and tribes could live peacefully together, even during the toughest and most challenging of times.

This class is graduating at a time and in a society where far too often we praise and give attention to the loudest voices, the fastest talkers, the most verbose, and the most outrageous… it is my profound hope that you follow Baker, Lincoln, Hyat-Khan, and others like them who practiced the art of eloquent listening, particularly with those they did not agree.

And when you do listen, be open to changing, evolving and growing. Listening, learning and the evolution in thinking it produces – not closing one’s ears and remaining steadfastly committed to preconceived ideas - are the mark of true leadership.

And before I take my own good advice, the professor in me cannot help but leave you with one exercise that I hope you practice in both your personal and professional lives. It comes from renowned psychologist Anatol Rapoport who said, postpone all attempts at persuasion until you can summarize the position of your opposition to their satisfaction.

Imagine how different our world would be today if we practiced this more often.

And with that, I am going to shut-up. Thank you for being such great listeners.

Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D., is professor of political science and international studies at Iona College, New Rochelle, NY USA. 

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