“The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak,” wrote Arthur Martine, whose advice on conversation and connection has, if anything, become more relevant today than when first published over 150 years ago. And while most of us recognize the negative social aspects of failing to keep our mouths shut, we struggle to see silence as a critical part of leadership.
We’ve come to picture great leaders as those who give inspirational speeches and always have the perfect answer. We celebrate the leader who lives in the spotlight and is the constant center of attention.
But this image sets us up with unreasonable expectations. For one, no one has all of the answers. And two, people who constantly preach inspiration generally make us want to gag.
We all want to be effective. And we all want to be heard. Yet it’s not always the job of the leader to be heard. More importantly, their role is to make sure everyone else can be.
And its this choice that often determines the difference between success and failure.
Opportunities for Improvement?
“Be the silence that listens.” – Tara Brach
“That’s a great idea, but what if you changed this part? And maybe added this?”
“Don’t you think that makes it better?”
Imagine you have a young employee. Someone who’s worked on a new idea and finally has it to a point where she’s comfortable enough to present it to you, her manager.
And it’s a good idea. you like it and think it has real potential to make a difference.
But as the smart, experienced manager that you are, you think that you can make it even better. So what do you do?
“What kind of ridiculous question is that?” you may ask, if you’re the type of person who argues with an online article. “It’s obvious we should help people make improvements.”
And maybe the answer is yes. After all, you are smart and experienced. But before we immediately offer our suggestions, we’d do well to recognize the cost that comes with them.
Don’t Underestimate Execution
“To me, ideas are worth nothing unless they are executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.” – Derek Sivers, Anything You Want
The best ideas in the world are useless unless they’re executed well. Regardless of an idea’s brilliance, it will eventually run into obstacles. Without strong execution, that’s where it’ll die.
Conversely, combine a good idea with great execution and it can transform into a brilliant success. Ideas evolve and grow. As long as they have a strong advocate.
Written as an equation, the opportunity for an idea’s success often equals the product of its quality and it’s strength of execution.
Why does this matter? Because while your suggestions and improvements may increase the quality of your employee’s idea, they’ll also decrease their commitment to execute it.
With every suggestion we make, the idea belongs less to the employee and more to the group. With this change comes a decrease in employee ownership. And people don’t work as hard to execute ideas they don’t own. It’s simply human nature.
So if your suggestion increases the idea’s quality by 20% but cuts your employee’s commitment in half, you’ve drastically reduced the idea’s opportunity for success. And suddenly offering that suggestion no longer seems like such a great idea.
Where’s the Best Value?
“People who offer great advice understand that their goal is to help someone on their unique journey. People who offer bad advice are trying to relive their old glories.” – Mike Maples Jr., Tribe of Mentors
I’m not suggesting that we never offer our ideas for improvement. There will doubtless be times where it’s needed. But before we bestow our “genius” ideas on everyone around us, we’d do well to stop and consider the unintended consequences.
We all want to add value. But we need to decide which side of the function we want to expand upon. Idea quality or execution? Which side will deliver the best value in this situation? And does the benefit outweigh the cost?
David Foster Wallace once described a real leader as one who “can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own.” In one of the best definitions of leadership I’ve ever seen, there’s no requirement for rousing speeches or having all of the answers. Just an understanding of the people around you and what will help them perform to their very best.
Idea quality or commitment to execute? Where will you add the most value? And if that means staying silent, then swallow your pride and keep your mouth shut. Because as Harry Truman put it, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”