Why Leaders Listen

This is a lesson Nelson Mandela learned from his father. 
(I heard it from public speaker and thought leader Simon Sinek - @simonsinek - in one of his talks about leadership)

According to Sinek the great Nelson Mandela once was asked by a journalist,

“How did you become a great leader?” 

Mandela being the son of a tribal chief (Hendry Mphakanyiswa of the Tembu Tribe) 


“I remember going to tribal meetings with my father and I remember two things. 

We always sat in a circle and my father was always the last to speak” 

We’re are social animals. We communicate and communication is listening and talking… but leadership is the practice of being the last to speak.

Very often, you see this in boardrooms, an executive will walk in and say 

“Here’s the problem, here’s what I think we should do but I’m interested in what you all think.” 

The problem: It’s too late!


  • people either change their opinions based on what the authority said 
  • or they start agreeing with each other 
  • or they just don’t give you their candid answers and they no longer feel heard because the executive has already weighed in. 

A true leader would say: 

“This is the challenge we face I want to know what you think” - without rendering any opinion and then listening and trying to understand.

Important: not giving any hints of agreement or disagreement (!) but rather trying to understand the reason that somebody has that opinion and stating it back in their terms simply to be clear that there’s agreement. 

By the time you get around the table and get back to the leader, everyone feels heard and the leader has the benefit of different perspectives. 

Even if the leader decides to decide differently from what someone in the room believes, everyone feels like they contributed. 

That’s leadership.