Leadership Is Listening First

By Vice Admiral A.H. Konetzni, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

In early February 2001, while I served as Commander, Submarine Force Pacific, I departed my office midmorning to fly to the Republic of Korea and then Japan to celebrate with the allies the end of my tour in the Pacific.

On my way out of the office, a senior staff officer asked permission for a hosted submarine ride for civilians in the coming weeks. My reply was simply, “Don’t break any china for this ride.” My response was inappropriate. Clearly, I did not seek to understand the query. My response, although clear to me, was not understood by the staff member.

I should have delayed my departure to find out more about the request. Or since time was short prior to my departure, just have said “No!” If the event were truly important, my staff would have communicated its importance while I was on travel and that process would have given me the opportunity provide a more appropriate and understandable reply.

The bottom line is that my failure to clearly self-project was a factor—even if an incidental one—in the series of events that led to the tragic collision between one of my submarines, the USS Greenville (SSN-772), and the Japanese fishing training ship Ehemi Maru , in which seven individials lost their lives.

It goes to show that simple acts can mitigate or contribute to an accident or incident. Major problems will occur only when all the holes in a block of Swiss cheese are aligned perfectly. Embracing a safety philosophy that invites clear, open communication gives everyone an opportunity to close those holes.

Effective communication involves much more than broadcasting. In the area of self-projection, I once read, “Never deny. Always reply. Never ask why!” Over the years, I learned never to block communications from coming to me. I should always, after listening, reply to the requests. It is important never to interpret the request in a negative manner. Good communications require—in no order of importance—listening, communicating clear goals, orders, and instructions, understanding body language, and avoiding arrogance.

Listening Is Critical

Leaders are truly at their best when they seek to understand, and then be understood. Listen with the intent to comprehend rather than to reply. Learn to listen carefully and take in the full meaning of what the speaker is trying to communicate. Listening is the leader’s full responsibility. Effective listening allows the subordinate to know that you care and are engaged.

A negative example will serve to make this point. I recall a counseling session decades ago when my senior called me in to discuss my performance appraisal. He provided me with the written appraisal, and while I read the evaluation he continued to work on another project. When I finished reading his evaluation of my performance, he asked if I had any questions or comments. I truly was taken back. I believed the Navy was sincere in telling us young junior officers that performance appraisals and counseling were the bedrock of our growth and selection processes. Yet, my superior showed no interest in me or my professional growth. His inability to communicate turned me off for the remainder of my tour in that submarine.

Vocabulary Matters

Communicating goals, orders, and instructions can make or break an individual or organization. I believe that there is a direct correlation between success and vocabulary.

It has to do with understanding others and making yourself understood. Do not use slang or acronyms in your conversations. They may be understood back in the department or by the guys at the bar but they are an annoying habit to people not in the club, which will be most of the people you deal with!

Body Language Says It All

Of equal importance to self projection is the understanding of body language, to include one’s own! It is easy to remain sensitive and perceptive of our own feelings while discounting that of others. Understanding body language is key to better communicating with peers, subordinates, and seniors.

Your body language says it all. People respond positively to those who are friendly and treat them with respect. People are impressed with quiet self-confidence and a relaxed demeanor. When you are attacked, take a deep breath and listen to the criticism before returning fire. At the same time, do not wait until the arguments have grown cold and people have formed their opinions. Respond carefully, thoroughly, and thoughtfully. A soft answer turns away wrath. Preparation is your best defense.

When body language shows that something is wrong with the individual being mentored or counselled, do not conclude the session until you are certain that you understood the problem and the person with the problem is comfortable with his or her way ahead.

If something unpleasant must be done—like firing someone—get on with it. But make it as pleasant as possible, especially for the one who is hurt. Leaders have a moral responsibility to help the individual who is fired maintain some level of self esteem.

Avoid Arrogance

For years I believed passion for certain objectives, like building more submarines for the United States, was admirable. Now, as I look back, I realize that sometimes passion can be seen as arrogance by the listener and diminish one's chance of success. Intellectual arguments always will win the day. Of course, you never know the day that victory will come. In the meantime, attempt to keep the flame burning by pushing the argument while avoiding an air of arrogance. Respect and listen to those around you. Understand how body language can shut down or open up communications. Always listen first; never leave people guessing about your intent. Enabling everyone to self-project is key. Remember, the outlying view may be the one that saves the day.

Vice Admiral Konetzni, known as “Big Al, the Sailor’s Pal,” served as the deputy and chief of staff to the Commander, Fleet Forces Command, before retiring from the Navy in 2004. His previous assignments included Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. In 2016 he retired as vice president and general manager of Oceaneering International Inc.’s Advanced Technologies Marine Services Division. Vice Admiral Konetzni served as chairman of the Naval Institute’s Board of Directors from 2002-2005. 



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