I Would Be Honored if You Would Listen to Thoughts About Listening Leadership

I approach this column as perhaps the “most” I have written in 20 years. It’s most important. Most controversial. Most already-written about. And most tricky.

I am writing about Mr. Kavanaugh and Ms. Blasey Ford.

What’s tricky? Well, first what lens will I use, and will you agree to see through it?  The fact is this unfolding drama invites us to choose from a wide array of analytic lenses.  We can look at:  memory, the influence of alcohol, the influence of trauma, adolescence and alcohol, the question of what is “due process,” language itself, the nature of what is “judicial,” modern ethics, PR execution, and even religious education. And, of course, politics. I hope you can set all these intellectual filters aside.

So, the story.  Then the filter.

My friend Desiree Cooper penned what hit me as a truly inflammatory blog title: “American rape culture means ALL women experience the world with men as predators and them as prey.”*  I began a response on Facebook with every intent of pushing back…”Rape, Des?”  “ALL women???” I stopped. Why? To hear HER view.

The lens?  Listen.

In the past, I would have said, “Des you are guilty of a gross exaggeration: ALL men are not rapists and are not predators.  Saying they are, is extreme, untenable and insulting.”  I have been thinking and writing a lot about listening.  And when I made myself re-read and really listen, I realized I was literally not getting what Des was saying. I was mostly hearing similar things that others had said in the past.  But even more than that, I was hearing, what I, me, Dan had been thinking in the past and was now thinking in this moment.  It felt like good fortune that I momentarily escaped that enticing rehearsal of my profound thoughts and arguments.  And, I tuned in to listen again.  And realized:  She was speaking about WOMEN’S experience and her reflections…as #MeToo goes on and on and on. Doh! I heard what her “extreme statements” and her use of the CAPS LOCK key meant – to her – and what they might mean for me. Let ME use some caps to explain a difference I saw:

I have NEVER worried for my safety when walking around Berkeley at night. I have NEVER felt a woman stare intensely at me, “undress me with her eyes,” stare at my body parts. NEVER had a woman or man whistle at me or catcall. I have NEVER wondered if a “touch” was too close, or a “hug” too strong or too long. I have interacted with a lot of powerful people in my life – journalists, law partners, judges, governors, CEOs, professors at office hours. NEVER has one made me squirm with their suggestive language or double-entendres or invitations for a drink or to stop by their place.  I’ve NEVER kept an eye on my drink nor needed someone to escort me . . . ANYWHERE, EVER. All of this for the simple reason: I am not female.**

I NOW see no blame and no shame for me-men in recognizing this contrast between Des’ statement about ALL women, with its contrast to my NEVERs experience.  In the past, I could not say this. I think it was shame and defensiveness for “my” people, for men, for America that kept me from hearing something so difficult. The cognitive mind can offer ALL kinds of arguments, but I am convinced, it was not reason that was driving what I wanted to say.  It was emotion that was driving reason.  It was the difficulty of hearing someone else’s story without having it be about me, my people, our goodness.  I’m slow. It has taken decades to begin to put aside my scared ego, my team, my fear of shame and blame.  I am no model here.  Nor am I finished with this work. But I am learning to listen. HARD STOP.

I think our country and especially our “leading men” have a chance to stop and LISTEN.  I mean the Senate.  But I really mean something so much bigger than that.  Everyday Leaders. Dads. Uncles. Bosses. Priests. Etc.  We men need a lot of real courage to listen, not so quickly to tell others what they need to do.  But to just listen.  I think leaders constantly work to develop that capacity – to set aside their hopes, wishes, tribes, opinions, self-interest, and especially their fears of facing hard stuff.

And just LISTEN, to

Lead with Our Best Selves.

* Desiree Cooper’s full article is here.  For (white) men, it will really test your capacity to listen non-defensively.  Only read it if you have the patience and strength to want to stretch your mind. Needless to say: I recommend it.

**I hate putting this in a footnote, because it deserves at least as much attention as gender, but all of my NEVER statements are not solely because I am male. Ta Nehisi Coates’ explanation of how a black boy’s body and mind are under assault from very early on shocked me; it is one of the best books I have ever read and should be mandatory reading in “social studies.”  So also, I know that gay, trans, queer and others have felt like “prey,” as Ms. Cooper describes.  Often, but not always, the most frightening “predators” of these “prey” were also men.