Listening Is Not Leading

02/14/2011 04:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Listening and leading are not the same. Every time I hear elected leaders talk about how they were sent to City Hall, or the State Capitol, or Washington, DC to listen it makes me want to scream. Well listen to this, you are wrong. You were NOT sent to listen, you were sent to lead. Listening is a part of your responsibilities but it is not the sole purpose for your elevation to a position where you actually have the power to make decisions that affect untold numbers of people.

Every bit as important as listening is hearing, but if you only listen to those who are responsible for putting you in that position in the first place and in a society that is as polarized on the major issues of the time as ours that effectively means that you do not listen to, let alone hear, a large portion of your constituency. Hence, it is virtually impossible to actually fulfill your primary duty: namely, to reach the compromises necessary to move society forward. Listening, even if done properly and with all good intentions, is simply not the same as leading.

If you are truly interested in serving all of the people, a rather critical ingredient to leading, then you would listen to all the people and make decisions based upon the best judgment you can muster to responsibly address the myriad concerns of a diversified society. What is consistently and ominously missing from any discussions coming from too many politicians at all levels of government is a commitment to leadership, that is making the tough decisions that folks either care not to hear or want to accept. The essence of leadership is the ability to convince people that, whether they see it or not, it is in their best long-term interest and the best long-term interest of the country as a whole to do unpopular things, to make sacrifices, to actually make hard decisions.

Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that our so-called "leaders" are either interested in or capable of stepping beyond the comfort zones of their own electoral prospects to do what is necessary and needed. I do not believe in or favor term limits, but I do subscribe to the notion that serious leaders should act as though they never intend to run for re-election, thereby strengthening their resolve to make decisions based upon the best information available and not upon whether or not it enhances their ability to remain in positions of power.

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and the corrupt nature of a political system that is shaped by, led, and sustained through an endless bounty of special interest influences and financial contributions makes it increasingly susceptible to impotence. The inability to make hard decisions hurts the democratic process because the public's faith and trust in either the institutions of power or the powerful diminishes. The resulting cynicism and desperation corrupts the ability of normally rational minds to render rational thoughts, so in the end what we are listening to is of questionable value even if they are being heard.

Listening only has value when one's mind is open to an assortment of ideas and proposals that may illuminate or educate the listener. If we only listen for the sake of hearing what we want to hear, the art of listening loses its value. Listening is important to the process of leadership, but it does not constitute leadership. So the next time you hear one of your leaders say that he or she was elected to listen, make sure they hear you loud and clear as you take them to task on the foolishness of the proposition. And make sure they listen when you tell them in no uncertain terms to do the job they were elected to do, which is to lead. If they do then their listening skills will have been put to good use, otherwise they may be listening without hearing, and my dog is good at that.