#TheoThursday: Leading by Listening

outstretched hand in black and white

The book of James was written by Jesus’ half-brother, James. The book of John (7:2-5) shares that James did not at first believe in Jesus’ divinity, but after witnessing the resurrection he did. He then became a leader in the messianic mother church in Jerusalem (Acts 12,15). This was one of, if not the very first, Christian communities ever. Adhering to the teachings of Jesus, and sharing the truth of the resurrection with others, this community immediately faced persecution, famine, and poverty. Eventually, as the Jewish historian Josephus accounts in Antiquities of the Jews, James, along with many of the members of this early community, was stoned to death for their faith in Jesus.

I share this context to shed light on this famous Bible verse written by James:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be QUICK TO LISTEN, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” James 1:19 (emphasis mine).

Imagine for a moment you are reading this letter from James in the first century. Just before this, James begins the letter encouraging the readers to “consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). In the midst of the aforementioned persecution, famine, and poverty, the readers of the letter might be tempted to think: “Really, James? Consider these circumstances pure joy? Moreover, you want us to be ‘quick to listen’ rather than being quick to fight back! Our anger is the ‘righteous’ kind after all!”

Anger is a large topic for another discussion, the point here being that James’ counsel, to be “slow to become angry,” was wise not only in the first century, but remains wise today. We are always better revisiting a hard conversation when emotions have cooled—and we are definitely best not firing off emails, texts, or tweets, when we are hot! Before giving into these human temptations, James advises we should be quick to listen.

Fast forward to our day. All workers, leaders included, live in a day bombarded with digital distractions, constant connectivity, and incessant demands. Arguably, “being quick to listen,” has never been more difficult, and has never been more needed. So, everyone, leaders in particular, need to intentionally listen.

Let’s use the context of meetings as an example — a recent topic on Bald in Business – listening is arguably the characteristic that distinguishes the leader from the follower in the room. I make this claim because it takes intentionality to listen, understand, and weigh, the opinions and feedback of other people. By listening to others, leaders begin to embody the trait of a leader that people want to follow. There is assurance in following someone that listens to you, especially one who embodies “being quick to listen” like James advised. And without followers, you simply are not a leader. So, if you claim to be a leader, you better be listening to what others have to say or risk becoming someone not worth following in the first place.

Of course, we leaders won’t always get this right. I was called out for being on my phone during meetings last year. In essence, my follower was saying “listen to me” instead of your email! I listened to the feedback, and changed my behavior. What great advice!

In closing, we live in a day and age where any person can spew an opinion. It takes guts, discipline, and intentionality, to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Model these and you will distinguish yourself as someone others want to follow.

I suspect James did, which is why others followed him, even to the point of stoning.