Listening is the secret to discovery

By BRIAN TOWNLEY Reality Intelligence featured trainer

“The problem with waiting until tomorrow is that when it finally arrives, it is called today.” – Jim Rohn

One valuable lesson my professional development has taught me is to listen, ask questions, get answers and then ask more questions. It’s true everything in life can teach you a lesson, you just have to be willing to observe and learn.

Being open-minded enough to have honest conversations with other people allows the mind to travel down the avenue of new possibilities. I’ve learned more insights about leadership from others by taking the time to learn about their journey, challenges and successes.

It would have been a shame to miss out on these insights because I was too busy to listen, too preoccupied to respond or too comfortable to want to continue to learn and grow. Some of them sought me out for advice; I sought some of them.

Besides sharing what I’ve learned, I always try to learn from the ones who seek me out because they are eager to grow and achieve more. This has been a major wake-up call for me as a leader. Regardless of who initially sought whom, the power of collaboration sparks the fire of passion. It’s impossible to accomplish goals or create change without understanding this power.

It’s remarkable what we can learn when we talk to the people who cross our path. Every person has a story that has shaped them into who they are at that very moment. Many times, those stories are read online or seen on the evening news. Often, though, the most inspiring stories belong to people we know personally. In all of my travels, I have met many outstanding people; however, one of the most inspirational stories was from someone much closer to home.

A mutual friend suggested my professional development work to leadership author Rachel Woods. She contacted me after discovering we live in the same city.

On the day I met Rachel, I was jet-lagged and exhausted from an extended trip. However, I wanted to hear her story. Upon our meeting, she shared an inspiring message about her husband.

Riley Woods is an attorney in Texas. While a third-year cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he sustained an injury in a skiing accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Seven years later, he and his teammates made history with Team Everest ’03, the largest cross-section disability team ever to reach Mount Everest’s base camp. That point is more than 3,000 feet higher than any geographical point in the continental United States. The journey to base camp took 18 days.

This endeavor gained Riley more than the immense feeling of accomplishing such a remarkable feat. He also gained an appreciation for what he describes as “the many blessings and privileges we have in the United States, where people with disabilities have so much access to opportunities to be
contributing members of society compared to people in other parts of the world.”

He and his teammates were seen in their wheelchairs amid the cultural sites of Nepal drawing the attention of curious onlookers. The disabled in their country are not generally seen enjoying that kind of mobility and freedom.

Riley also had to face his fears and contain his pride as his two porters would carry him over the trails that were too difficult for a wheelchair to maneuver. He longed to hike the trail unaided, but he and his teammates knew that in order for the entire team to accomplish its goal, they must relinquish their wheelchairs.

When the trail would allow it, Riley pushed himself around boulders and rocks, through snow and mud, for several hours at a time. He and his teammates worked hard to overcome their physical obstacles to reach a pinnacle that was both tangible and emotional.

Riley said that the journey taught him, “We all should be defined by what we can do, not by what we can’t do. We shouldn’t be afraid to climb the highest mountains or set the highest goals, regardless of our circumstances. The potential of the human spirit is limitless, and it enables us to do anything-even the impossible.”

As Rachel told her husband’s story, I realized that determination is the bridge between passion and purpose.

And what was his purpose of climbing the mountain? If anything, it had a ripple effect that continues to inspire others that the view is better from the top; we just have to keep climbing.

This defining moment could not have been accomplished without a team. If anyone on the team thought of quitting, they could look around and see the others continuing to climb and be inspired by their focus and willpower. No one on that team wanted to let the others down. The collective success of the team was based on the individual success of its members. This is true for virtually every endeavor we choose to undertake in life.

This story reinforced for me the powerful messages others can share with us. How many people do we know in our midst who have climbed a proverbial mountain?

By investing the time and effort to listening instead of talking, we open ourselves to those who can meet us where we are in our journey. Otherwise, we are limited to only our own experiences. By the same token, true leaders know that leading themselves contributes to only half of their success. The other half is helping others.

The mountain we are climbing, the journey we are on, is usually a trail that has been traveled by those who have come before us. Likewise, we are forging a trail for others. Leaders can be inspired knowing that their work creates a foundation for future travelers seeking this journey. It is another way to consider the long-term ripple effect of genuine leadership. Leaders leave their mark, whether positive or not, and that alone is worth considering when that mountain looms ahead.

Leaders should take the time to listen, instead of coming up with an answer quickly to avoid looking weak. Leaders can ask members of their team open-ended questions such as “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” or “What are the most important challenges we should make a priority for this company?”

By listening to these answers, leaders can glean valuable insights and begin to prioritize what’s important. Listening with intent can open channels of communication that become the foundation of a leader caring about his team and conveying that message to them.

Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.