The business proverb--a good leader is a great listener—isn’t new. But, while most of us can see the overarching idea clearly, the particulars are harder to make out. What exactly is a great listener, and where can we find a leadership example?
With her meteoric rise to fame as the American Ballet Theatre’s first ever female African American Principal Dancer, Misty Copeland has shattered stereotypes, challenged the racial divide among both dancers and audience members, and mentored a steady stream of ballerina hopefuls toward their goals. And, while her dedication to her craft, hard work and discipline offer much to learn from, her unique approach to listening offers two unexpected lessons that are particularly valuable for today’s leaders.
Listen to yourself – “It’s important to believe in yourself… If you don’t believe you are worthy, then no one else will.” Shortly after joining ABT, Copeland was called into a meeting with the Artistic Department, who made the company’s casting decisions, to discuss her aesthetic. “We’d like to see you lengthen,” they told her—code for: we want you to lose weight. At 5’2” and 108 lbs., however, weight wasn’t truly the issue. Build was. Where the traditional ballerina is slim and nearly prepubescent in shape, Copeland had matured into a strong, athletic body, with broad shoulders, muscled legs, and the curves of an adult woman. “I hated… that I was different from the others. I felt singled out for all the wrong reasons. I became so self-conscious that, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t dance strong.”
Copeland didn’t linger in that mental space for long. “My priority became simply accepting my new self.” She began each rehearsal by telling herself her strong body was capable, and built perfectly for what she needed it to do. Refusing to believe she was not the “ideal shape,” simply because her body was different from the ballet norm, Copeland began dancing with confidence, again. Soon, the staff at ABT took notice, and the definition of what a “perfect” dancer’s body should look like expanded.
As a leader, you will face moments where your approach with your team looks different from others’—and that’s okay. Listen to yourself. If you know, objectively, that your leadership style is working for your team, draw your confidence from within and move forward with purpose.
Listen to your mentors – Copeland’s first years at ABT were difficult. “I looked around me, and in a company of 80 dancers, realized I was the only black woman. I felt completely isolated and alone.” Despite her obvious talent and work ethic, Copeland became, as she called it, “the token brown girl,” often hearing whispers that she “must have played the race card” to gain entrance to the company. As time passed, she began to feel hopeless, and considered leaving ABT. One night, however, while watching a documentary on the Ballet Russe, everything changed. “This black woman [Raven Wilkinson] came on the screen and started speaking, and it was the first time I felt like I recognized myself in another dancer. It was so powerful!” Copeland sought a mentorship with Wilkinson, and Wilkinson taught her to find the lesson in any adversity, rather than feeling angry or defeated. She encouraged Copeland to believe in her talent and hard work, and insisted that if Copeland’s response to unfair treatment was measured, thoughtful and never lacking in confidence, her voice would be heard.
But Wilkinson wasn’t Copeland’s only mentor. In addition to seeking out mentorship with someone in her field, Copeland sought guidance from outside the world of ballet. She credits her business manager, Gilda Squire, with helping her realize there was a larger purpose to her career than simply dancing. “It started out with us sitting down at a coffee shop and her saying, ‘What do you want to say, and what do you want from your career?’” From that conversation, Squire and Copeland designed a platform of public activism to help reach Copeland’s goal of diversifying ballet—for herself, and for others.
Copeland says of mentoring, “So many of us think, ‘I can do this on my own… But, we’re human beings, and we have those moments of being fearful and having doubts, and that’s the time you need to be surrounded by people who are going to reassure you that you have a purpose and a mission.” Leading can be difficult. Make sure you have people in your corner who can guide and encourage you, and make sure you listen when they do. No one will argue that great leaders must listen to the people they lead. But, also learning the art of listening to ourselves and to those who have walked the path before us will make us more confident, better focused leaders, able to face adversity and rise above it. Take the time to listen to the inner voice that guides you, and cultivate relationships with people you respect and can learn from.
Are you a great listener? Are you looking for ways to better lead your teams? Let us share more leadership lessons from empowering leaders in an online workshop. You bring the team members, and we’ll create an immersive learning program, linking real-life examples with your individual workplace issues.
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