Do we really listen?

Today’s TED talk, Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!, is excellent and contains some valuable lessons regarding leadership and entrepreneurship (along with some good humor).

Key takeaways:

  • “We western people are inperialist, colonialist missionaries. There are only two ways we deal with people – we either patronize them or we are paternalistic.”
  • “If people do not wish to be helped, leave them alone. This should be the first principal of aid. The first principal of aid is respect.”
  • “Become a servant of the local passion, the servant of local people who have the dream to become a better person. So what do you do – you shut up; you never arrive in a community with any ideas; and you sit with the local people.”
  • “Nobody in the world can succeed alone.”
  • “Listen to them – but not in community meetings. Let me tell you a secret. There is a problem with community meetings. Entrepreneurs never come. And they never tell you what they want to do with their own money.”
  • “We work one on one. To work one on one you have to create a new profession – the family doctor of enterprise. The family doctor of business who sits with you in your house and helps you find the resources to turn your passion into a living.”
  • “What I did that first year was walk the streets.”
  • “I shut up and listen to them.”
  • Peter Drucker: “Planning is actually incompatible with an entrepreneurial society and economy. Planning is the kiss of death of entrepreneurship.”
  • “You have to learn how to get these people to come and talk to you.”
  • “The truth about entrepreneurship – the product that you want to sell has to be fantastic; you have to have fantastic marketing; and you have to have tremendous financial management. Guess what…we have never met a single human being in the world who can make it, sell it and look after the money. It doesn’t exist. This person has never been born.”
  • “There is only one thing that all successful companies have in common. Only one. NONE were started by one person.”

In education, we have leaders at all levels who arrived and didn’t take the time to have conversations with those already doing the work of the organization. They may have even been hired because they have demonstrated experience with “turn around” efforts. But are these leaders really listening once they arrive in the organization?

On the other hand, is it all listening as Sirolli suggests – “What I did that first year was walk the streets. I shut up and listen to them”? Does an organizational population necessarily know what they don’t know? The classic example often cited is the success of the Apple products – iPod and iPhone. Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t sit down and listen to what people wanted….they created something the people didn’t even know they wanted until it was thrust upon them. What is the important takeaway from Sirolli’s talk is that the leader cannot come riding into town with grand ideas without having any understanding of the organization – the people – and the context in which they are working. But they do need to have a pool of resources to pull from when moving an organization forward. First, leaders need to understand the unique context of the organization and then lead the people to the resources they need to fuel an inherent entrepreneurial spirit.

Am I really listening?  Or am I listening through my lens in order to get what I want out of the relationship and what I think will benefit the organization and its people?