Bully for Me!
I’m The Cleverest Person in the Room!

Last week, I attended a memorial service for one of my great mentors, the generally acclaimed #1 leadership guru (and extraordinary humanist) (and leader in his own right) Warren Bennis. About 15 of his friends and colleagues spoke—myself included. It was eerie: We each—without exception—said the same thing, albeit in slightly different words. Warren made you feel clever—and at the center of his universe. This ability, in addition to its ultimate expression of humanist existence, may be the effective leader's most valuable attribute when it comes to engaging the mind and heart and soul and energy of others.

Consider these related quotes:

"When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling I was the cleverest person."—Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's (American) mother

"When you are talking to [Bill Clinton], you feel like he doesn't care about anything or anybody else around but you. He makes you feel like the most important person in the room."—Mark Hughes, screenwriter, Forbes blogger

"Leadership is about how you make people feel—about you, about the project or work you're doing together, and especially about themselves."—Betsy Myers, Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You

"It was much later that I realized Dad's secret. He gained respect by giving it. He talked and listened to the fourth-grade kids in Spring Valley who shined shoes the same way he talked and listened to a bishop or a college president. He was seriously interested in who you were and what you had to say."—Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Respect

"Rather than talking at the assembled group [about the work], he went about it from the other direction. He started out by asking people to tell us about what mattered to them. By sharing their stories with each other, people felt more connected—these gatherings became an opportunity to go from 'me' to 'us,' and from there to 'What we can do together.'"—Betsy Myers, on Marshall Ganz's work with community organizers, from Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You

I would—literally—beg of you to do more than skim these quotes. To be sure, I was very emotional throughout Warren's service. But I was also stunned at the repetitiveness of the theme among people of remarkably different backgrounds.

Try and translate this into the/your daily practice of leadership. It's not that I think you—or I, for that matter—can match the intensity or sincerity of Warren's engagement. But we can at least be aware of our oft straying attention amidst a harried day. Warren's days were doubtless more harried than yours or mine. But for the duration of the time you were with him—10 minutes or two hours—his ability to make you the star of the drama was matchless. At the very least you can acknowledge the importance of this state of affairs—and raise your personal awareness of your moment-to-moment state of mind. You can also practice attentiveness—one manager reports that she writes "Listen" on her hand before a meeting.

There is, by the way, a virtuous circle process that emerges here. Your attentiveness is fun—that is, you learn a helluva lot about the person, their motivations, and the task at hand via the process that one keen observer calls "fierce listening."

Try it.
You'll like it.
You'll try even harder.
You'll get better.
It works.
(And in the process probably makes you a better person—nice bonus, eh?)

NB: One useful approach to improvement is becoming a formal student of asking good questions. This is an art—but also a science. I.e., you can study and practice deliberately. One point of entry is Ed Schein’s book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Rather Than Telling; also see Schein’s Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. When asking becomes your primary mode of interaction, your attentiveness and other-centeredness more or less automatically go up.