The One Skill Every Modern Leader Needs In 2020

Let me share with you the one skill every leader, regardless of experience or previous training, will need to level up their leadership this year. I’ll walk you through exactly how to implement and start practicing right away, because theory is great, but if we can’t figure out how to implement it, it’s not worth much.

Without mastering this one skill, leaders are doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the past, which will be a major obstacle of success in the future.

This post is perfect for leaders who...

  • Are high-achieving and desire to build a high-performing team;

  • Strive to run a successful and thriving business or business unit and be a “good boss”;

  • Want to develop their team and help them excel in their roles….but keep running into challenges and can’t seem to get their team’s performance dialed in.

In our very fast paced business world, leaders are running from one meeting to the next, leaving with a to-do list longer than they arrived. Eating meals at their desk, often too busy to use the restroom until the end of the day, their real work begins well after 5:00pm once all the meetings have finished and most people have gone home for the day.

As a result, a lot gets lost, particularly in our communication. There’s one mistake that I’ve seen every leader do, regardless of how experienced or how much training they’ve had: Talking to or at their team, instead of listening to them.

As a leader, you know the importance of listening to your team members. You’ve probably even learned of active listening along your journey.

Most trainings fail to demonstrate the depth that’s possible of effective reflective listening.

Reflective listening is the one skill every leader must level up this year.

I discovered reflective listening during my ontological coach training program as well as through a different Compassionate Listening training program, after I left my corporate job and started my own coaching and consulting practice. Reflective listening is the one single skill that single-handedly changes my client's outcomes. Better than any other tool, reflective listening is the tactic that delivers results and moves the needle.

I wished I had this tool back in my corporate days!

Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving two key steps:

  1. Seeking to understand a speaker’s idea, then

  2. Offering the idea back to the speaker to confirm that the idea has been understood correctly.

It attempts to reconstruct what the other person is thinking and feeling and to relay this understanding back to them. Reflective listening is a more specific strategy than more general methods of active listening. Empathy is at the center of this approach.

When leaders regularly practice reflective listening, they create solid relationships with their team in which they feel seen, valued and appreciated for their contributions.

Their team members feel safe enough to voice disagreements, knowing that their manager can listen to them without reacting poorly. These are the conditions necessary to cultivate innovation and creative problem solving, which are essential for high performing teams.

When your team feels seen for their brilliance, valued and appreciated for their contributions and are supported, they will go above and beyond for you. This is when the real magic can happen in your organization and you can make progress in leaps and bounds.

The Four C’s of Reflective Listening

You need to listen with more than just your ears. The key to reflective listening is to be completely present to the other person, that means all of your attention. Great leaders have learned to listen to not only what’s on the surface (what they are actually saying) but also what’s beneath the surface, including what they are not saying, what they mean, how they are saying it, and what their body language is saying. One major pitfall leaders fall into is that they interpret a certain action or what was said in a certain way without ensuring that their interpretation is correct. In my experience, the interpretation is often off base.

1. Curiosity

Not sure what they meant by that comment? Ask them.

Do their words and their body language conflict with each other? Mention it and get curious about what might be really going on for them.

Do their words and their actions conflict with each other? Ask them what stops them from achieving what they set out to do.

Instead of interpreting behaviors or creating stories, get curious.

According to HBR, when our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions. In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.

Here’s the deal: Being curious is more than asking questions, it’s a state of being. If people feel like you are interrogating them in your line of questioning, you’re probably doing it wrong. Remember what it was like to be 5 on Christmas morning and you really, really wanted to know what was inside that shiny wrapping paper box under the tree? Option after option kept whizzing through your mind as the different possibilities popped in your mind? Be that level of curious.

2. Compassion

Imagine this scenario -- a highly educated, talent yet still early in his career Division Leader is meeting with the CEO to go over the performance of his Program. The CEO is disappointed in the performance and progress since their last meeting and over the last 6 months overall. The Division Leader is clearly struggling to manage all the requirements of the role. Both leave the meeting feeling frustrated and extremely dissatisfied, not feeling good about the other person.

The missing ingredient in this scenario is compassion from the CEO. Rather than getting frustrated, being short, and keep telling him to do the same thing month after month, the CEO can lean into the conversation. By reflecting back what he is hearing (that the Division Leader is overwhelmed by all the job duties and isn’t getting to some of the necessary requirements of the job), and showing compassion for what it must be like for him to be a high achiever who is currently overwhelmed and not meeting performance must be rough, the CEO releases some of the pressure in the situation. The leader is left feeling as though they’ve really been seen and understood, which is a fundamental human need and builds the emotional safety necessary for a high-performance culture.

Compassion is awareness of another person's distress followed by a desire to alleviate that distress.

Here’s the deal: Showing compassion doesn’t mean that you agree with them or that you are denying their level of poor performance, it means you simply understand what it’s like to be in their shoes. Progress will never be made until you’ve connected with the other person about the situation.

3. Connection

This is the perfect time for the CEO to connect on a deeper level with his leader. Keeping up the curiosity, this is the time for the CEO to inquire further about their experience. What’s their biggest challenge? Are there any processes in the organization that are hindering progress? Really connect and get to know their experience. If applicable, the CEO can share a story of a time that they were underperforming and what they ultimately did to turn it around -- but keep it short, this isn’t about you.

If the CEO can build a connection to let his leader know that he understands his challenges and is willing to do his part to contribute to the leader’s success, then the two can begin to really make progress.

When people feel cared about, they rise to the challenge.

Here’s the deal: When you can make an authentic connection with your team and connect back to the reason they were hired for their position, you have the chance to inspire and motivate them to step it up and make a bigger effort to improve. When the going gets tough in business, your currency of connection will pay off 10x.

4. Chipping In

As a leader, it’s inevitable that your team will need your help. Too often, leaders don’t pitch in which generates a workforce who is disengaged and uncommitted.

As a leader, you must be willing to contribute to your teams’ success by taking action.

I’ve always adopted a leadership philosophy that my role as a leader is to remove the obstacles for my team and get them access to the skills and tools they need to do the job. This means that you need to roll up your sleeves to lead the charge of process improvement or follow up with unresponsive team members or build communication pathways or do some of the grunt work or whatever it takes.

Here’s the deal: If you are going to expect your team to meet your expectations, you’ve got to be willing to help them achieve that goal. Your team will need you to help them -- to keep them on track, to remove the obstacles in their way and clear the path for them. It doesn’t mean do their job for them, it means investing your time in them to develop them to achieve their goals. When you invest in your team, they’ll invest in you.

If you only work on improving one skill this year, focus on

reflective listening.

By reflecting back to your team member what you are understanding from them both from their verbal and non verbal communication, checking it out for accuracy while showing curiosity, compassion, building authentic connections and chipping in to contribute to their success, you’ll become a leader of an unstoppable team.

This kind of leadership builds teams who are motivated to do their best and be leaders in their industry.

Do you struggle coming up with good questions to ask?

Don’t know what kind of questions to ask when it comes to poor performing team members? Download your free guide of Ask: Don’t tell. You’ll get access to questions proven to produce different results.

Look, leadership isn’t easy. Many will opt out and more will complain from the sidelines. Few will rise to the challenge of being a great leader. But for those of you who are rising to that challenge, I’ll be here cheering you on and encouraging you along the way because we desperately need great leaders.

In service to your greatness,


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