By: Joe Richardson, Esq.

There is constant discussion about leadership in the college space.   Being involved in studies related to interests, sports, student government and Greek life should be a springboard for the accelerated development of leadership skills. While leaders have many noteworthy characteristics, the most important of them may be the ability to listen. Leaders should be effective communicators. While the definition of communicate is “to give information about something to someone by speaking,” key to the word “communicate” is the prefix “com” or “co.”   It is a living prefix dating back centuries, and means “together, mutually, or in common.”

Consistent with the foregoing, it is impossible to be an effective leader if you can talk but you cannot listen.   To hear what’s going on, and understand what the needs of a group actually are, leaders have to do more listening than talking.  That listening has to start with self-awareness; said another way, you cannot disregard your own feelings and points of view.  You must know that your thoughts belong “in the mix” of the groups that you want to involve yourself in. Next, remember that others’ thoughts belong “in the mix” too.  If leaders initiate with a clear understanding of the needs of the people, groups, and interests they represent, this gives them a greater chance to be effective. In this way, all participants in a group or endeavor are potential leaders.

Embracing Differences

Leaders get a great deal of practice listening when they find themselves in environments with different people (like college)!  For any leader, a focus on recognizing differences is imperative. There will be all types of differences between those in any college crowd, be they visual, political, racial, or otherwise.  A leader will find commonalities even in situations where they are not so obvious.

While the goal (ideally) is to embrace things and people different than us while in college, the definition of “diverse” is differing from one another.  Differences often give us caution and fear for good reason—simply, they are ingrained.  We have a natural instinct to want to categorize things (and particularly people). Often, categorization relates to our safety: for the same reason we would not go into a lion’s den, we are taught that certain types of people are to be feared or approached with caution.  As it turns out, the “certain” type may just mean “different.” We also categorize others in order to feel better about ourselves; a form of superiority complex that is often based on insecurity. Additionally, the pressures of college (for instance, academic anxiety), will often bolster our instinct to categorize and distinguish.  However, this rubs directly against the vital listening element of leadership. Because we embrace those instincts to be safe and superior (academically, politically, or otherwise), it makes us demonize other perspectives and points of view, sometimes without even knowing it.

Amphitheater Theory

I remember going to a concert with a friend and my best friend’s mom Janis while in high school. (My best buddy Steve liked music but not enough to go the concert). My friend and I sat together in the upper left corner of the amphitheater, while Janis had a seat in the lower level, dead center.  (And if you want to know, it was the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC.) After the concert, we were amazed that Janis saw some different things than what we’d seen. It was literally like she was at another concert.

This experience made me come up with what I call the “Amphitheater Theory.”  Basically, how you see things most often begins with where you sit. If you walk into a movie theater and sit to the left of the center, you must look to the right to see the screen.  If you are on the right side, you have to look to the left. Imagine jumping up and yelling to the person on the other side of the theater: “How could you possibly look to the left….I (emphasis on “I”) have to look to the right!”  Similarly, when leaders fail to listen to others, they effectively say: “how DARE you have a different point of view?” Our views are often based on our upbringing, the teachings of our parents, the flow of our communities, the news that we watch, and other observations made in our comfort zone.  In fact, decisions often out of our hands significantly shape the things that we see early on, which in turn, inform our point of view. Each of our views can be valid, while they are different.

You’d Better Recognize!

To be an effective leader, you must recognize that other points of view exist. It should not hurt to recognize that another person in your class, fraternity, or student government sits somewhere else in the amphitheater of life.  Listening and recognizing other points of view is strength, not weakness. Other perspectives may be used to solidify your own point of view, or to even modify your thoughts in some ways. In fact, most of the time, some of both will end up occurring.  Leaders that listen do evolve, and even change. There will be much to communicate about in your current group or project endeavor. In an irony, though, you will work better together (making you more effective as a leader) if you show your ability to communicate (including listening) as to something unrelated to the job at hand, or project in the future.

Leaders must not be afraid to communicate, and specifically to listen.  When leaders understand the importance of listening and make it a priority, they empower themselves and everyone around them.  This helps to identify and solidify the “same page” that those involved in a group or project will stand on to help them accomplish worthy team goals.

Learn more about Joseph Richardson and his programs, visit