It was a statement that immediately arrested my imagination. A statement that was simple yet profound and one that conveyed an idea that proved unshakable. It was a statement that demanded contemplation and had me immediately reaching for a means to record it before it got lost in the unfolding storyline.

I was watching the movie Grey Owl, the true story set in the 1930’s of a ‘Native American’ conservationist of the Ojibwe tribe who worked to raise global awareness on the endangered beaver and the decimation of the forests. A man ahead of his times and celebrated as an articulate and outspoken ‘Red Indian’ (as he was referred to back then) but who, on his death, was revealed to be of British origin, having been born Archibald Belaney on 18th September 1888. As a young man, Belaney had immigrated to Canada and taken on a First Nations identity. In that sense it is the story of a little boy who became his dream. It is a story where both deception and authenticity are inextricably entwined. In the story, Grey Owl whilst giving what was to be his final public speech, makes the memorable statement, ‘the nightmare of no more silence’.

The nightmare of no more silence: An evocative and powerful thought. We live in a world where silence is assaulted in every possible way. It is a world in which urbanization is on the march, one in which noisy cities banish silence to isolated places. It is a world that is increasingly uncomfortable with the unfamiliar experience that silence affords and with that, a neglect of the gifts that silence invites.

I want to suggest that it is a thought that has both significance and relevance for you as a leader.

Increasingly the concept of ‘reflection’ is making itself felt within leadership literature by those who write and speak on leadership practice. There is a growing realization that beyond evaluation sits the discipline of reflection and without it, the leader’s ability to regulate his or her behavior, is limited. We have a ‘learning leadership cycle’ that includes four ‘stations’ – theory, practice, evaluation and reflection (Forde) – it is a cycle that provides a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to develop savvy leaders. It is an ‘open-ended’ cycle in that as it spirals to increasingly greater depth new learning unfolds. It is a dynamic inter-play between the theory which informs practice, which leads to the need to evaluate and then invites reflection. This then in turn leads to a reshaping of the theory – and so the cycle is re-launched. I refer to it as the ‘leadership tumble-turn’. The leadership cycle offers an excellent framework from which to plot any leadership development or education initiatives.

Of these ‘stations’, reflection is the most in need of our attention in the process of leadership development and education. Of this I have no doubt. In the vast majority of leadership development programmes in which I have been involved, programmes designed and hosted by leading business schools across the globe, reflection is the most neglected part of the process. It would seem that there is a real unease about building serious reflection into the learning process for fear that it appears as ‘doing nothing’ or merely provides opportunity for busy executives to catch-up on email and stay connected to their noisy world. Given opportunity to ‘reflect’ I have seldom seen participants in such programmes understand what is required of them or grab hold the opportunity wholeheartedly. Silence and inactivity have been worked out the leadership equation and they go against the grain of what we understand as effective leadership. This is wrong and we are the poorer for holding such beliefs.

Reflection (silence) is the bridge that connects our little world to the greater world. It is the bridge from our activity to self-awareness that leads to emotional intelligence. Silence means distinguishing oneself from immediacy, it offers the pause that leads to a more intelligent engagement as a leader. Silence is a discipline that every leader needs to cultivate into a leadership habit.

I once had opportunity to befriend a monk from Bhutan by the name of Gembo. In was in the context of teaching in the Asia Pacific Leadership Program in Hawaii, where Gembo was a participant. I had been talking about reflection and the need for self-awareness after which I discovered, much to my embarrassment, that Gembo had once embarked on a ten-year silent retreat. In fact he only completed six years as the King of Bhutan had requested that he interrupt his retreat in order to play a key role in Bhutan’s transition to a constitutional monarchy. Six years living in silence… and here I was talking about silence and the discipline of reflection! Gembo left an indelible mark on those fortunate enough to meet him. I am sure that there were many factors that contributed to such an impression but I know that the reflective habit he had so intentionally cultivated was a mayor ingredient in that mix.

When teaching on strategic leadership I employ a teaching methodology (pioneered by a colleague) known as the ‘Silence Class’. Essentially, after a brief introduction, it involves a prolonged period in which I say and do nothing (this can be up to four hours). During this time I remain in the classroom and stay alert and attentive to the unfolding events but refuse all efforts to get me to speak or activity engage with the participants. It is used to create a classroom experience that Ron Heifetz of Harvard refers to as an, ‘adaptive challenge’. An adaptive challenge can be defined as, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. I have written an article on the Silence Class and believe that the class would be a rich research subject. I have had the opportunity to do the class around the world on over 30 occasions, involving approximately 730 people, representing some 45 cultures. All this has given me a unique and revealing insight to leaders’ ability to engage with silence. Social science research confirms that certain Eastern cultures generally have a greater tolerance for silence than do most Westerners, but in my experience, the overall ability to be silent is extremely low. We have been taught to talk, to engage, to be active, to be doing something…anything, and all of this provides a degree of comfort, reassurance and leaves us feeling productive together with a sense that this is what is what ‘good leaders do’.

In many cases such an approach doesn’t work and may even do harm. Reflection becomes an essential leadership attribute in a world of exponential change and disruption. Leaders need to create opportunity for silence for reflection and in doing so, need to lead the way. Perhaps we need to find another word for ‘silence’ – if that is what it takes, then I’m all for it.

Grey Owl spoke about how every creature has its rightful place and in it’s rightful place it becomes beautiful. He illustrated this by talking about how clumsy beavers look on land but not so in water. Practicing silence, if unfamiliar, will at first seem clumsy and unnatural. But as with most things, the more you practice the art of silence, the greater will be the ease with which it happens. I once suggested to the CEO of an engineering firm who was battling with his executive team that he bookend his Exco meetings with a time of silence. The skepticism that greeted my suggestion was all too apparent but he was desperate enough to try what sounded like a “lunatic idea”. A couple of months later I happened to bump into him in an airport and before I could even ask him as to how the silence had worked out he offered an amazing story. He said that when he first introduced the concept of starting the meeting with a time of silence there had been some quizzical stares but it had gone unchallenged. The first couple of attempts were really too short to accomplish much and most of the team he said had shuffled paper around in some discomfort whilst the silence lasted. However gradually the period of silence grew and with it the comfort level amongst the team. “An amazing thing happened” he said, “somehow the quality of our meetings improved dramatically and I’m not exactly sure how but I suspect that the silence at the beginning and end was the major reason for this improvement. In fact we now have some 5 minutes of total silence to open and close our time together and I think if I were to try and dispense with it, there would be a lynching. It has become that important”.

For the discipline of silence to become both an individual and collective leadership habit, a solid business case will most likely be needed. This is hard to deliver and like the CEO, one might need to be willing to launch out in faith that there will be good to be had rather than rely on measureable evidence to the fact. It simply doesn’t work like that and I suspect you understand exactly what I mean when I talk about the need to simply try it without waiting for the proof. In that sense it is a little like exercise and getting fit. Hard work initially before the benefits are to be seen and felt by which time it has become part of your life!

I believe that silence is part of leadership, as it is part of great music and art. It forms an essential part of life and leaders need to rediscover silence for both themselves and those they lead. A story is told as much by silence as by speech, it is a virtue that reveals as much as it may cover. We need it now more so than ever given the noisy clutter that makes for 21st century living and it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that silence forms part of the organization.

Here then might be some questions on which to reflect before perhaps exploring the subject further:

  • What is your comfort level with silence? Why is this?
  • What would it take for you to experience silence for a period of time?
  • Who could teach / mentor you in such a discipline?
  • In what ways could you introduce this into your team / organizational culture?
  • Why could silence be important in your practice of leadership?

Elbert Hubbard, an American writer, artist and philosopher who died in 1915 once said, ‘he who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words’.

I suspect you hit the nail on the head Elbert!

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