Here's a story I recently read: In ancient China, a king sent his son to the temple to study under a great master. Because the prince was to succeed his father, the master was asked to teach the boy the basics of being a good leader.
So the master sent the prince alone into the forest for a year. When he returned, he was supposed to describe the sounds of the forest.
The master asked him to tell what he had heard. The prince replied, "Master, I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the winds whisper and holler."
The master then told the prince to go back to the forest to listen again. The prince was puzzled. Had he not discerned every sound already?
For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening, but he heard no sounds other than those he had heard already. Then one morning as he sat silently beneath the trees, he began to discern faint sounds unlike those he had heard before. The closer he listened, the clearer the sounds became. A feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy.
When he returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. He responded, "When I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard, the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew." The master nodded approvingly. "To hear the unheard," he said, "is a necessary discipline to be a good leader. For only when a leader has learned to listen closely to the people's hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of can he hope to inspire confidence in his people."
There is much truth in this story. How many times have we, as leaders in our companies, listened only for what we wanted to hear?
All managers get their fair share of positive reinforcement and untrue reassurance. Not many of us have the intestinal fortitude or the desire to penetrate below the surface and get a healthy dose of reality. People's true opinions can be hurtful. But the true mark of a leader is to uncover what's beneath the surface and address it head on with candor, commitment, and deep caring.
It is a great gift when your subordinate tells you, "Thanks for the invitation to your house, Mr. CEO, but I'd rather spend the weekend with my family." It is not a slap in the face. Most of our subordinates will not tell us when we lose credibility among the troops or when there are unrest and deep concerns.
Being in touch with the people, in touch with reality, is key to a manager's success. Develop an atmosphere of trust, and develop your ability to hear the unheard.