OPINION: One needs to make listening a priority to be a good leader

Thursday May 16 2019

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji

Professor Zulfiqarali Premji 

Listening is an undervalued yet highly important virtue – and is, indeed, one of the main virtues of a good leader.

Listening – as distinct, from mere hearing – gives one the advantage of analyzing to ensure that one appropriately addresses matters with the level of importance that they warrant. Listening and effectively analyzing enables one to devise a correct action plan, thus heading in the right direction.

No leader with a vision would ignore messages which others seek to transmit, particularly if they transmit them with enthusiasm and/or concern. Failure to listen implies a defective structure – or that there is no leader (kiongozi), only a mere administrator (mtawala).

Talking is easy. Relying on our prior beliefs, values and what we think we know is easy. But listening is hard – principally because it requires a great deal of mental effort and humility to acknowledge that one may not have all the answers.

Also, listening is hard because what we hear from others often makes us uncomfortable by exposing our own weaknesses and ignorance. We’ve been told to ‘like,’ ‘comment,’ ‘favourite’ and ‘retweet’ – as if doing this would lead to enlightenment and civil dialogue.

But, listening is not always our priority.

What one should do is to put oneself on ‘silent mode,’ and listen to others for a better understanding of oneself and the world at large.

The best listeners have the greatest capacity for personal growth because they’ve freed themselves from the tyrannical prison of their own condescension and ignorance. When we listen to others, we get that much closer to understanding each other.

When we listen, we convey respect. When we listen, we acknowledge the humanness of others.

Let me illustrate the ‘lack of listening syndrome’ by a pertinent example. Tanzania’s noble goal of becoming a middle-income country via industrialization by 2025 is relevant and possible if a truly-enabling environment is created.

But, without foreign investments, that goal will be difficult to achieve.

Although the government is struggling to attract foreign investors, its efforts are being thwarted here and there.

For example, a senior Tanzania Investment Centre (TIC) official recently accused the Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) of discouraging investments by its harsh tax collection methods. Closing businesses by TRA agents for tax defaulting exacerbates the non-performing loans burden for commercial banks, resulting in higher credit costs to the private sector.

When President John Magufuli met with TRA officials recently, he expressed dissatisfaction with TRA performance, stressing the need to increase the tax base, as well as the number of taxpayers.

Despite having a population of some 55+ million, Tanzania has the lowest number of registered taxpayers in the region, and TRA should come up with strategies to increase the number of taxpayers as a matter of course.

For her part, Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan took time out to urge the need for TRA to be taxpayer-friendly.

In the past, I have written a couple of times in this column about the modus operandi of the nation’s premier revenues administrator, saying that TRA – and the Finance ministry – seem not to listen to advice.

However, it is gratifying to note that TRA has finally started to listen; this is indeed a positive move. But more needs to be done.

Hopefully, it’ll be more business-friendly by not wantonly closing businesses. Unfortunately, the ‘non-listening syndrome’ isn’t limited to TRA.

A number of other government institutions suffer from a similar problem: not listening.

Positive/constructive criticisms have been written or spoken – but the institutions don’t listen... Or don’t respond if/when they listen!

Possibly, this latter is because they find it hard to understand, analyze and respond to, or deal with, contrasting views. Admittedly, this isn’t easy – and that’s wherein comes the role of a leader, contrasted with a mere administrator. It’s a pity that some people in national institutions still fail to listen in this day and age.

Consequently, they also fail to realize that they are not always in agreement with reality vis-à-vis their interpretation of matters.

Confirmation that a ‘non-listening structure’ exists emerges whenever the President tours administrative regions. That’s usually when the people complain to him directly on issues which are within the jurisdiction of regional ‘leaders’ to solve – but never do so because they are not the ‘listening type!’

Rushed decisions, rushed actions without considering popular opinion will lead us nowhere. Listen and analyze; provide feedback; reevaluate strategies and change accordingly. Anything short of this is bound to be counterproductive, delaying us in our journey to a semi-industrialised, middle-income economy by 2025.

Remember: if you listen, you will be listened to as well.

Zulfiqarali Premji is a retired MUHAS professor. His career spans over 40 years in academia, research and public health.