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Listening to the Vital Truth of Silence

By Eric J. Russell, Ed.D., CHPP

HCI Research Associate

When Robert Greenleaf conceptualized the Modern Philosophy of servant leadership, he placed listening at the forefront of what it means to be a servant leader. The key, he noted, was to listen first. Moreover, to spend a little time in the silence.

In his seminal essay The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf stated, “One must not be afraid of a little silence. Some find silence awkward or oppressive. But a relaxed approach to dialogue will include the welcoming of some silence. It is often a devastating question to ask oneself, but it is sometimes important to ask it - 'In saying what I have in mind will I really improve on the silence?”

In our highspeed low drag world, many just want to react. You know Problem-Solution.

But the question is, react to what?

And how?

And how do you know that what you just blurt out would actually make a difference?

Most things, with the exception of a few specific career fields, are not usually an emergency, and don’t call for split second decisions. The plane isn’t about to go down and the building isn’t about to blow up. The problem, however, is we have been programmed. Because of modern technological advancements, it has psychologically turned everything immediate. You don’t have to look any further than Amazon Prime or a Google Search engine to understand this. The ability to have spontaneous real-time information and instant-multiple communication modalities, have made what was seemingly ordinary in the past, urgent. Yet as I said before, they’re not urgent. You have time to listen.

Think of listening like walking down a wooded path, the path itself is walled in by deep forest and you really can’t see a thing. And due to grade changes, you can only see so far ahead and so far, behind. Yet, as you get closer to the end of the path, where it opens up to an awe-inspiring clearing, the forest gives way and you eventually get to see everything. Views for miles. Mountaintops. Maybe a lake. When we react without listening, we are reacting with a forest around us. We are incapable of seeing the entire picture, because our vantage point is strictly emotion and bias. The forest is engulfing us and we can’t see a thing, yet, Ironically our ego believes we’re ready to decide. Listening allows for the forest, or ego for that matter to give way. It paints the true picture.

This same concept holds true for listening to self. Specifically, spending time in the quiet of our own mind. Maybe on a walk. Meditation. Whatever works for you. Time free of distraction. Phone off. Mind and ears open. This is how writers, artists, and musicians create. We expect it if them and then are taken back and inspired by what they come up what. This same concept needs to hold true for leaders. Leaders need to demand the quiet, a time for silence.

Alone in the darkness, I like to say. The darkness of our own thoughts. When it’s just you, your pillow, and maybe the boogieman in the closet. A time for imagination. A time for realization. A time for inspiration. A time to get figure out how to get that monster to go away. When you’re surround by forest, i.e. noise, the unknowns, the operations, the needs and conversations of people, you cannot listen to self, and what your mind has to say is what you need to know.

Alone with self can be a scary time. You have to deal with the boogieman in front of you, i.e. your thoughts. You can’t convince your mind otherwise because it’s impossible to deceive yourself since you know the real truth. Lying to yourself is like cheating at solitaire. To try to do so would lead to lasting damage.

As a leader, you have to have the courage to stand alone and listen to the vital truth of silence.



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