Life, Liberty, & Happiness

My Biggest Leadership Lesson of 2020


eadership is never easy—but 2020 likely was the most difficult balancing act of my career. If you’re like me, you’ve been bombarded with well-meaning messages for us as leaders:

Be calm. Be decisive. Be strategic. Be understanding. Be bold. Be empathetic. Be supportive. Be tough. Be smart. Be transparent. Be resilient. But my biggest lesson in leadership I’ve learned during 2020 is simply this:

Be Quiet. And Listen.

So many workers feel their leaders talk at them, not with them or simply to them. That feeling was only magnified when Zoom calls and masks became routine during this pandemic. Leaders and employees feel stuck in a dysfunctional communication cycle of giving information and providing updates instead of really connecting. We all feel more disconnected than ever - and it’s very hard to find meaning in a video chat or email.

Many leaders aren’t great listeners in the first place. That is particularly true when the topic involves something uncomfortable or bad news, as has been much of the conversation between employees and leaders in 2020. For most leaders, the pressure of keeping the business afloat in 2020 was more than a full time job. It’s easy to feel the weight of our own stress without fully appreciating how magnified that stress may be for someone depending on us as a means to feed their family.

The fragile uncertainty of continuing employment, business sustainability and overall fatigue from day-to-day survivor stress has taken its toll on the employee as well. Trying to juggle work, a child attempting to learn at home and family stress only compounds the feelings of isolation.

But we as leaders can change this paradigm. We hold the power to move from giving information and updates to deeper connection with our team. And we do this by simply asking questions, being quiet, and really listening.

The right questions engage others. By asking questions, we invite conversation. And once we ask a question—choose to engage in active listening. Instead of thinking about your response (which is what most people do when others are talking), take in what is being said and repeat it back thoughtfully. This absorbing and repeating shows you understand and that you can place yourself in the other person’s shoes. It fosters learning for both you and the other person. And this deeper understanding of another’s perspective builds stronger bonds of connectivity.

I may not agree with everything I hear. That’s OK. I honor the employee by confirming they were indeed heard. One of the most powerful human needs is that of being heard. And in the midst of a pandemic—we, as leaders, must listen.

People don’t care how much you know till they know how much you care. And the most authentic way a leader can show they care is to simply listen.

About Dr. Michael Burcham

Michael is an executive coach, entrepreneur, investor, and strategist with 30 years of experience leading investor-backed, high-growth organizations.

“I built and sold a $40M company with Dr. Burcham as my mentor. This is the thing: if you EVER get the opportunity to learn from this man, from that moment forward, you’ll list him as one of the most influential people in your life, even if you live to be 90. And, you’ll know how lucky you were to have that opportunity and you’ll immediately say YES to any chance to be in his presence again—his wisdom is that impactful.”

Sherry Stewart Deutschmann

Former CEO, Letter Logic

“If you are looking for a trusted mentor and coach for yourself or your leadership team, I highly recommend Michael Burcham. He has worked with me as my executive coach for well over a decade now. Our conversations and his feedback have helped me sharpen my critical thinking skills. He’s a trusted advisor that I can confidentially speak with about any issue—and I know I’ll get valued feedback. I highly recommend him.”

Ryan McGrath

CEO, Asset Living

“Dr. Burcham’s depth and breadth of experience makes even the most ADD entrepreneurial leader sit up and take notes! His coaching skills bring out the ‘best you’ possible. He selflessly shares the good, the bad, and the ugly—leaving you with an authentic and moving experience sure to spur action and professional growth!”

Julie Lenzer

Director, U.S. Department of Commerce


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