Listen, Learn, and Help. Then, Lead.

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I’m constantly drawn to leaders in military settings. I suspect it’s because of the immense gravity surrounding their specific situation.

It’s hard to fathom what it’s like to lead a country being bombed on a nightly basis like Churchill or finding a way to stay positive when you’re facing a seemingly dominant adversary with a dwindling force and no money to pay new recruits like Washington.

These situations only magnify the importance of great leadership, which makes them all the more useful for us to learn from.

Recently, I finished reading Call Sign Chaos by four-star General James Mattis and Bing West. The book traces Mattis’ 44-year career through the Marine Corps and the various leadership lessons he learned along the way. Outside of the direct experience he gained leading millions of troops in battle, Mattis is a voracious student of military history.

When someone with this much experience offers to share their knowledge, it’s not a bad idea to listen!

Mattis continually referred to the “Listen, learn, and help. Then, lead” leadership style attributed to George Washington. This approach provides a helpful contrast against the typical power-hungry

Step 1: Listen

We often think of leaders as high profile individuals that swoop in with all of the good ideas. This is far from the truth.

More often than not, the team is the one that comes up with the good ideas. They’re closer to the actual work, whether the “work” is an ongoing battle or a service you’re delivering to customers.

Our first inclination is often to offer our point of view. After all, if you’re put in a leadership role, you must have some good ideas to share right?

The best course of action is almost always to listen first. If you do so intently and earnestly, you’ll learn an immense amount from your team.

Listen first. Then, (if necessary) talk.

Step 2: Learn

Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.

Bill Nye

There are two mindsets you can carry through the world.

In the first mindset, you know everything and have all of the right answers. If everyone else would just be quiet and listen to you, we’d all be better off.

The second mindset is one of humility and curiosity. Maybe you don’t have all the answers? Maybe you could learn from everyone else around you?

It’s not too difficult to see which option we should lean towards.

Everyone around you has different experiences and vantage points to share. Listen intently and then assume there’s something you can learn.

Step 3: Help

We’ve taken the time to listen and learn from those around us. Now, stand back and watch me solve all the problems. Right?

Not so fast.

Before you start charging in and trying to solve problems or implement your grand plan, ask a simple question, “How can I help?” Listen to the answer and prioritize the needs of your team over your grand plan.

By helping first, you’ll earn their respect, trust, and attention, three primary currencies of leadership.

Step 4: Lead

Finally, the step we’ve all been waiting for! We get to lean into the actual work of leading. What took so long to get here?

“Manager” is a title given through hiring. “Leader” is earned through respect, humility, and hard work.

Jumping straight to action and skipping steps 1-3 risks the entire relationship with your team. If you don’t demonstrate that you’re willing to listen, learn, and help, you won’t have any followers.

Let’s not forget, in order to be a leader, people have to want to follow you. This applies regardless of whether you’re a four-star general or leading a sales team.

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