How To Lead Through Listening

by | 0 Comments | February 14, 2017

Originally posted on LinkedIn.

Growing up in public housing in Seattle, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee recalls hearing his father called a “chink” by some of his family restaurant’s customers. When I spoke with him recently he described the intense suffering it caused his father and how it ignited a fire in him that remains with him today. For the young Ed Lee it was a challenge to “be better than the folks that might be calling me these names. I’ll outsmart them. I’ll do things better.”

Enrolled in law school at UC Berkeley, Lee looked to use the law to try “to help people do better.” It was in stark contrast with what he saw from his classmates, who were largely motivated  to become lawyers to make money. He would imagine one day confronting his classmates in the courtroom, “you bet I’m going to beat their ass” at trials.aaron1

After law school, he decided to represent public housing tenants in Chinatown, often seniors, living without hot water for months on end. His clients felt stuck in their appalling living conditions, and lacked the English language skills to communicate with city officials who maintained these buildings as they had little or no access to official translators. They also feared that if they complained or withheld rent they would be evicted. It was the perfect cause for a progressive, freshly minted JD.

“They actually had a right to demand heat and hot water, and keeping the lighting and elevators working. They may have had subsidized rent. But you can withhold that rent in proportion to the services you are not getting,” Lee recalls. He thought the government was enabling this situation by failing to help the tenants have a voice to advocate for their rights, and admits that while working on his first case he “actually hated San Francisco city government.”

Balancing Old and New San Francisco

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The young Ed Lee would likely be shocked to learn that today he is not only the Mayor of San Francisco, but that his informal advisors and friends include all the wealthy titans of industry in the city from Salesforce’s Marc Benioff to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.  The same purpose that led him to fight the powerful as a young adult, today direct him as he sits in City Hall, representing the powerful he once fought against.

This is clearly a source of pride for the Mayor but also a source of criticism within the activist community, which has a very loud voice in San Francisco. He has been labeled by some as becoming too compromised by the influence of business, the source of much of the city’s economic and population growth. The activist community complain about the very real challenges of rising housing costs and the optics of taking private money from his new friends in the business community for public projects.

Leader as Listener-in-Chief

Unlike the celebrity mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom who preceded him, Ed Lee’s influence isn’t his name or voice but his ears. His team describes him as an adept listener and translator. People feel they can talk to him and share their perspective. As a result, he has access to insights few leaders enjoy and the incredible loyalty of the people he takes the time to hear. It has also helps him deescalate tension when it inevitably arises.

Mayor Lee is known for solving problems by listening to everyone in the room, literally. He usually kicks off meetings by asking a few questions but then sits back and listens. He doesn’t fill the empty silences. When his senior team brings their junior staff to meetings, they say that he solicits their opinions and ideas as well. It’s not until he fully understands the issue and the path forward that he asserts himself. He is described as someone who acts like he has nothing to prove.

At his department meetings, you see the incredible diversity of people in the room, including many people who don’t always agree with him. He has more women in leadership roles than any of his predecessors (50% of his core team). He was one of the first Mayors to study pay inequity and actively work to close the pay gap within the city’s payrolls. He has insisted on paying interns so he could ensure everyone could afford to explore a career in city government. And he has created a program to allow young black youth to ride along with police to help build understanding between the police and the community.

Mayor as CEO

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When Lee took office in 2011 unemployment was at 9.4% (higher than the national average of 9%) so he made jobs the top priority for his administration. He went on a listening tour, asking people in business, government and nonprofits to share their ideas. What became clear was that he couldn’t just help certain segments (or communities) of the city get jobs. “It would have been very easy for me if I had just concentrated on getting my Chinese buddies jobs or other minorities, but I felt that as a mayor I’ve got to figure it out for the entire diversity of our population, and use all my skill sets to make sure we create the conditions for everybody to get as many jobs as they can.”

Though he began this process thinking the way to increase jobs would be to boost opportunities in core industries like bio-sciences and tourism, he came to believe that the real secret is to “keep the talent here in San Francisco and to nurture it. The companies that employ this talent and want this talent will always be here, no matter what industry.”

As a result of his listening tour, he quickly shifted his focus to education where he has significantly increased funding. His vision is to ensure San Francisco employers have access to a steady flow of talent for generations to come. Four years into the job unemployment in San Francisco was down to 3.8% significantly lower than the national average.

In many ways, Ed Lee is the CEO of San Francisco. You hear him say many of the things a politician or CEO would say, like his pledge to serve the “entire diversity” of San Francisco. But you also see these values show up in little ways in his daily work that reveals a level of genuineness that is sadly becoming a rare quality in our politicians. As Mayor, Ed Lee expresses himself best through his quiet leadership style that enables others, including his critics, to fully express themselves and get their voices heard.

How Mayor Ed Lee Hacks His Job to Maximize Purpose

  1. Relationships: Don’t fill the silences in meetings. It enables you to hear voices that are often less vocal and develop new and deeper relationships.
  2. Impact: Be accessible to the people who are impacted by your decisions. You need to hear the impact of your work directly.
  3. Growth: Engage with people who might not have the same perspective as you. They will push your thinking and force you to questions your assumptions.

To learn about how other leading CEOs have built their careers around purpose, follow our series on purpose-driven leaders.


Aaron Hurst is an Ashoka Fellow, award-winning entrepreneur and globally recognized leader in fields of purpose at work and social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation which he led for a dozen years. Aaron is the author of the Purpose Economy and has written for or been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg TV and Fast Company.

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