The Virtue of the Silent Leader

There is nothing intrinsically good about not talking. Yet, it occurs to me that the abundance of words in the world of business today suppresses humanity; inhibits leaders from being fully human. Business battles fraught with internal power struggles and competitive intimidation affirm the lack of genuine listening, and the need, at times, for silence. 

The business world is filled with corporate-speak in order to entice the buyer to pay more or the employee to do more in the name of profitability.  Today’s business leaders are uncomfortable when their employees are sitting behind a desk without a phone attached to their ear or a person on the other side of the desk. Silence, in business language, often implies that nothing advantageous is being accomplished.

Scan the radio dial or the television stations and you will hear an abundance of words used in frivolous banter, harmful gossip, or inaccurate spin-doctoring of opinion. In his powerful book, The Way of Heart, Henri Nouwen skillfully suggests:

“Over the last few decades we have been inundated by a torrent of words.  Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colors, or many forms; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle.  Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence” (p. 45).

Later, Nouwen, in that same chapter entitled, “Our Wordy World,” describes his bizarre impression while driving in Los Angeles as entering a “huge dictionary.”  He writes:

“Where I looked there were words trying to take my eyes from the road.  They said, ‘Use me, take me, buy me, drink me, smell me, touch me, kiss me, sleep with me.’  In such a world who can maintain respect for words?” (pp. 45-46)

Indeed, because of their abundance, words have become a commodity.  Their dilution of power requires today’s leaders to use rhetoric to entice or incite others to action.  Sizzle replaces substance.  Code words replace honest conversations. Opinions replace truth.  The abundance of words numbs the soul, confuses the mind, and paralyzes the feet from walking the path of truth.

Here are some suggestions for practicing the virtue of silence:

  1. Seek to listen first. Listen with your ears, your eyes, and your heart.
  2. Suppress the urge to have the last word on the subject.
  3. Set aside a day (make arrangements with your administrative assistant and staff so they don’t think you are crazy) where you listen without speaking.

Life is best lived in intimacy.  The words we speak often more accurately reflect past debris and present distractions than enhancing genuine intimacy.  Although I have been deeply formed by significant relationships over the years, I am now certain that those relationships would have been more profound if I had spent more time listening than talking. The first casualty of the abundance of words is truth.

Listening is in short supply in the corporate world today. Try silence as a tool to be a better leader. You will actually learn more about your team, your corporate needs, and yourself.

Question: How much of your time to you spend talking versus listening?  What might you learn if you practiced the virtue of silence? Please leave your comment below.