Listen Well and Ask Better Questions
This post is part of our Frontline Leadership series, looking at what business leaders can learn from today’s military.
Occasionally I am asked if there are any lessons learned from my work in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya that helped me as a Marine in Bosnia, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa and now as an aspiring entrepreneur. In June of 2001 Kenyan colleagues and I established Carolina For Kibera (CFK) as a non-profit community-based organization to use sports to prevent ethnic violence and fight abject poverty in Kibera, where over 700,000 people reside in an area the size of Central Park. Funded in part by the Ford and Gates Foundations, CFK now creates opportunities for over 30,000 volunteers each year in holistic youth development, healthcare, and education programs that are led by residents, not outsiders.
In September 2001 I returned to the U.S. and began officer Basic Training in Quantico, Virginia. On September 11th my class of 200 second lieutenants were put on alert. At that moment we all knew that our life trajectories had dramatically changed.
While I was a Marine, I continued to volunteer as a leader of Carolina For Kibera. This involved near daily contact by email with our executive director in Kibera, Salim Mohamed. The most important lesson I learned from Salim and my colleagues in Kibera was how to listen well. It’s a skill crucial to both community development and counter-insurgency.
I arrived in Fallujah in 2005. Eight months had passed since one of the most intense battles of the war. Patrolling through Fallujah for the first time reminded me of old WWII photographs of Dresden. Tens of thousands of residents had moved back to Fallujah and were trying to restore their lives amid insurgency and occupation. I spent a lot of time working with members of the Fallujah City Council, which had begun to govern thanks in part to a heroic State Department officer named Kael Weston.
We listened intently to what was said and we observed how messages were delivered. Oftentimes the public message differed from the private one. Understanding the subtleties and nuances between the various messages was essential to building the political base that could undermine the insurgency.
My experience in Kibera also taught me to ask better questions. During one particular patrol we had received a box of stuffed animals from a charity in the U.S. We stopped and some Iraqi children came up to our convoy. Marines handed them stuffed animals. I noticed an elderly man under a date tree watching this spectacle with a spiteful look. My linguist and I walked over to him.
“Sir, you appear frustrated,” I said, “is everything OK?”
The old man told me that what we were doing was insulting. We should give the toys to the fathers so that they could then provide to their children. He was right. We stopped giving kids stuffed animals, and perhaps we left that old man beneath the date tree a little more tolerant of our efforts.
Listening well and asking better questions. Those are the most important skills our service in Kibera has taught me. I tried to use those skills to minimize the damage of war on my Marines and on civilians. I believe that we who are graduating with our MBAs in the midst of the deepest recession of our lives to date must be much more effective in leading responsible companies and creating value for all of our stakeholders. We should ask more and better questions of our stakeholders. We should listen much more carefully to what our stakeholders say and how they behave in our presence. I am hopeful that we will step-up to the occasion and create more enlightened and equitable standards of business leadership. We have a duty to restore faith and confidence in American enterprise.
Originally posted here, by Frontline Leadership @ Harvard Business Publishing