Byron's Babbles

Leadership Echolocation: How Big Are Your Ears?

echolocating-bat-with-bug-smallThis week’s leadership lesson (#17) from John Parker Stewart in 52 Leadership Lessons: Timeless Stories For The Modern Leader, used the analogy of how big bats ears are to help inform us as leaders. Bats have the best hearing of all land mammals. They often have huge ears compared to the rest of the body. Instead of relying on their sense of sight for night-time vision, bats make rapid high-pitched squeaks called “ultrasounds”.  These sounds are too high for most people to hear.  If these sounds hit something, they bounce back — sort of like when you hear your echo in a mountain or a bathroom when you shout.  The bat hears the echo and can tell where the object is.  This is called “echolocation”.  Therefore, bats actively listen instead of passively listening. In other words they listen for the feedback. Not every species of bat is able to echolocate, but most can.

I don’t know about you, but I wish I could use “echolocation” to really listen to those I serve. This story really resonated with me as we are studying deep listening in the Developing Myself course I am taking at Harvard University right now. We are doing exercises and case studies to develop true listening skills. Think about it… Would it not be great if we always concentrated on receiving the feedback instead of spending the time when others are talking with us to be devising our response. We need to spend time developing our listening skill to be that of a bat. In other words, we need to develop “leadership echolocation.”

“The bat’s two assets are listening and receiving feedback. How do you assess yourself in those two areas?” ~ John Parker Stewart

A useful tool I was taught to use at Harvard is that of the Ladder of Inference developed by Chris Argyris. The Ladder of Inference (shown here in a drawing I did for a professional development workshop on norming for teacher evaluation – I think you will be able to see how this would be valuable for those observing teachers) has six rungs:


  1. Observable Data
  2. Selected Data
  3. Assumptions
  4. Conclusions
  5. Beliefs
  6. Actions

The idea is to stay low on the ladder. As you move up the ladder away from observable data you begin to make your own meaning of what you are hearing. The problem is, this meaning may not be the same as the person you are listening to. Then some recursive loops begin to come into play. As we begin to form beliefs, we only listen and select data that supports our beliefs. See the problem? The other recursive loop that if we move to the top of the ladder and begin to take action, we only look for observable data that supports the meaning we have made out of the dialogue or situation. Again, the idea is to stay low on the ladder and keep moving back down the ladder.

So, how do we do we hone and perfect our “leadership echolocati0n?” As we find ourselves moving up the Ladder of Inference there are three things that will intentionally enables us to move back down the ladder:

  1. Question your assumptions
  2. Question your conclusions
  3. Seek contrary data to support or refute the meaning we are making

Most of us struggle with deep listening. Next time you want to have true dialogue with someone, consider where you are on the Ladder of Inference. Doing so will increase the feedback you receive from those you serve and have dialogue with.



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