The Most Overlooked Leadership Skill

Even before I released the disc, I knew it was a long shot. And, unfortunately, it was a clumsy one too.

We were playing Ultimate Frisbee, a game similar to U.S. football, and we were tied 14-14 with a time cap. The next point would win the game.

I watched the disc fly over the heads of both teams. Everyone but me ran down the field. I cringed, helplessly, as the disc wobbled and listed left. Still, I had hope it could go our way.

Sam was on my team.

Sam broke free from the other runners and bolted to the end zone. But the disc was too far ahead of him. He would never make it.

At the very last moment, he leapt. Completely horizontal, Sam moved through the air, his arms outstretched. Time slowed as he closed in on the disc.

The field was silent as he slid across the end zone, shrouded in a cloud of dust. A second later he rose, Frisbee in hand. Our team erupted in cheer.

Sam’s catch won us the tournament.

It also taught me a great lesson: Never underestimate the value of a talented receiver.

I was reminded of Sam’s catch recently after broaching a sensitive topic with Alma*, a client. The conversation was about some concerns I had about an upcoming meeting she was leading as well as my own insecurity about how I could help.

Before I spoke with her, I was hesitant and worried. Was I overstepping my bounds? Was I exposing myself? Would she reject my thoughts? Would she reject me?

I entered the conversation awkwardly, apologizing, and offering too much context. Even once I broached the issue, I felt tentative, unclear. I cringed as I felt my words hang in the air.

Thankfully, though, Alma turned out to be a Sam-level receiver.

Alma listened without a trace of annoyance. She asked questions — not to defend herself or refute my thoughts — but to understand my perspective more clearly. She was gracious, skilled, and accepting.

Her ability to receive me, and my opinions, led to a deep and valuable conversation about her performance, my role, and the needs of her team. A few weeks later, she showed up powerfully and led a remarkable meeting.

Typically, we choose our leaders for their skill at conveying messages clearly and powerfully. But, in my experience, it’s their ability to receive messages that distinguishes the best leaders from the rest.

That’s because the better you are at receiving, the more likely people will talk to you. And that’s precisely what every one of us needs: to be surrounded by people who are willing to speak the unspoken.

So how do you become a great receiver?

1. Be courageous. We often attribute courage to the speaker, but what about the receiver? 
I may have been scared broaching topics with Alma, but I had the advantage of time and preparation. I could control what I said and how I said it. I was able to think about it beforehand, write down a few notes, and test my thoughts with someone else. 
The receiver has no such advantage. Like Sam, he has to receive my throw, however, whenever, and wherever it lands. He has to be willing to listen to something that might make him feel afraid or insecure or defensive. And if he is a great receiver, he will take in the information or message thoughtfully, even if the delivery is awkward or the message jarring. That takes tremendous courage.

2. Don’t judge. Receiving is as much about what you don’t do as it is about what you do. 

Resist the temptation — blatantly or subtly — to be critical of the speaker or what the speaker is saying. Don’t argue with her, poke fun at her, shame her, act aggressively, turn on her, become defensive, or act cold toward her. 

3. Be open. In order to receive a pass in any sport — and at work and in life — you need to be free, open, and unguarded. 
Yet we often guard ourselves. Powerful feelings like fear, anger, sadness, and insecurity do their best to block our ability to receive a pass. If you want to be a talented receiver, your task is to feel your feelings without letting them block or control you or your response. Breathe. Acknowledge what you’re feeling to yourself — maybe even to the other person — without dwelling on it. 

Reiterate what you’re hearing, ask questions, be curious. Not curious in an “I-will-find-out-enough-information-so-I-can-prove-you-wrong” way. Curious to understand what the person is saying and to understand what’s underneath what they’re saying.

If you can be courageous, avoid judging, and stay open — even if the toss is awkward and the message unsettling — then, like Sam, like Alba, you’ll be able to catch pretty much anything.

And when you’re skilled at that, you’ll be a most valuable player of any team you’re on.

*Names and some details changed

Originally published at the Harvard Business Review.


  1. Bob Dailey says:

    Great post! Active and open listening is a critical management skill. “Don’t judge” are two powerful words for us all to remember in idea exchanges.

  2. Dear Professor Peter Bregman, RE: “The Receiver”

    * I understand you. (Hear,like and agree). dave

    PS: Could you send us a golfer? Have slots available: details at at USMC Base Quantico, VA. d

  3. Bheemesh says:

    Very essential & Important leadership skill.

  4. There is deep wisdom here, Mr. Bregman. As the “hearer” you need to fight the all-too-human urge that is usually our first reaction when we encounter an argument that is new or challenging: who is this guy? Why should I listen to him? It’s a mistake to reject an argument on that basis. But we all do it. In fact, it’s so common it even has a latin name, the ad hominem fallacy. (You can look it up.) There are two common forms: Poison the well (I don’t know this guy, he hasn’t been through the process, doesn’t know the secret handshake, so his argument must be bad), and tu quoque (He’s telling me to do/think something that he himself doesn’t, therefore he’s is wrong.)

    Fight it. Look at arguments without considering the source. Hitler probably made some valid arguments, right? Great post.

  5. A reminder as to why we have two ears and one mouth. Remain open, curious and teachable. We then gain access to many lessons.

  6. Udi says:

    Listening is a great and desired skill. Like other positive associated skills we would like our leaders to have them. Yet, as such, they have nothing to do with Leadership. As Kissinger once said, Leaders are to take their people from where they are to a place they have never been. Many times we actually expect them to ignore the common voice of the crowd. I guess that’s also why Quaterbacks lead their football teams. Not their Receivers.

  7. Mally says:

    Daring to listen without justifying is necessary, liberating, and revealing. Necessary if we are to hear what is actually spoken, including subtext, rather than what we assume will be spoken. Liberating because we do not have to pick up all our cudgels and other weapons – we may not even be attacked. Revealing because when we are vulnerable we can learn. We conversely do not learn much when we are closed, tight and ‘right’. How refreshing others’ opinions and perspectives can be! …and how we could have benefitted from their wisdom for so many more years if we’d closed mouth and opened ears and heart! Love this post. Speaking to me right now, where I am. Thank you.

  8. Jyoti Kumar says:

    Beautiful message, there is a lot to learn for humans in life.

  9. Meredyth says:

    This is a really interesting article. I find your work very thought provoking. I responded to this message for two reasons, the first because I joined my current work team as a young man was returning to work having broken his shoulder blade playing ultimate frisbee. It was the first time I had heard of the game.

    The second reason, it reminded me of something a colleague said. I work is for a government department and in the last year we have had in the last year several major ministerial shuffles and are now approaching a cliff-hanger election. With each new minister to our portfolio we have a very short time to bring them up to speed. The press know the questions to as and they need to know their area. The best ministers, said my colleague, are those who could carry a brief (i.e. who could get the numbers right, call things by their right names, and sound on top of the challenge).

    The morning after a new Cabinet has been announced seems like the ultimate of ultimate frisbee games. And for the minister hopefully the start of long run. I have mixed feelings about politicians and, politics aside, I have respect for the professional manner some being to this work.

  10. Adriana Marrufo Calderón says:

    Sr. Bregman.

    He leído algunos de sus artículos y visto vídeos donde refleja la postura sobre ejercer el liderazgo, y en especial este artículo, llamó mi atención respecto a que se descuida una de las habilidades de liderazgo que pasamos por alto: “el valor de la recepción”, parafraseando sus palabras: “por lo general, elegimos a nuestros líderes por su habilidad para transmitir mensajes de forma clara y poderosa. Pero, según mi experiencia, es su capacidad de recibir mensajes que distingue a los mejores líderes del resto”. Comparto profundamente su opinión, realmente nosotros buscamos a un líder por la capacidad de recepción, queremos líderes que estén dispuestos a hablar de lo que nadie se atreve a hablar, y que tengan el valor emocional de accionar sobre lo que nadie es capaz de accionar, (eso es lo que hace la diferencia), esas son las expectativas que tienen los seguidores de su líder.

    Uno de los principales problemas que afrontan los líderes empresariales es que gran parte del tiempo se dedican a estar atentos a sus propias emisiones y se pierde la esencia del liderazgo, poner en común la comunicación, esto implica también ser receptivo; para finalizar, me gustaría agregar que el líder debe ser receptivo a las innovaciones, a la comunicación, a las habilidades de sus seguidores, en fin, ser receptivo a las necesidades de la empresa y del entorno.

    Saludos cordiales…

  11. Sarai Joyas says:

    Buenas he visto tu post y es realmente bueno, a partir
    de ahora te sigo!! =)

Comments are closed.