SILENT LEADERSHIP: Leading in the age of distractions

According to 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” So the discomfort of being alone, keeping quiet and simply being didn’t start with TV, the internet or with smart phones: it’s been around for a very long time. Sitting quietly alone rarely registers as a desirable 21st century leadership trait, if at all! Today’s leaders are expected to be super busy, get quick wins, seamlessly multi-task, drive up productivity for better results, be innovators, rapidly solve complex problems, be accessible, widely engage with others, and the list goes on.

The power of silence

In his inspiring book Silence, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge writes that with the unrelenting increase in disquiet and interruptions, “Our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves. We live in an age of noise. Silence is almost extinct.” Kagge, the first explorer in history to reach the ‘three poles’ – North, South and the summit of Everest, has experienced extreme periods of silence, on his own in hostile wildernesses, sometimes for weeks. In those adventures he learnt to unlock the power of silence and how to find it, by drawing his attention inwards. The power of silence, emphasises Kagge, is within you. (Click on image to right to watch 'Erling Kagge: World’s Greatest Explorer – talks to Lucy Hockings' - YouTube 6:12)

Shutting out the world for time to think is a powerful leadership tool. Opening up our thoughts, without distraction, is when new solutions to pressing problems can be uncovered. Yet in my work with educational leaders and leadership teams I’m struck by the constant noise, interruptions and distractions they experience and endure. I see it, they tell me about it, this insistent pulling their attention outwards, away from themselves. This denies leaders the experience of silence as a practical method to uncover answers to the puzzle of leading and gaining new perspectives on what is “hiding beyond the horizon” (Klagge). Exposure to silence allows our minds and thoughts to expand outwards, revealing new understandings and insights about ourselves and others, and leading improvement.

Here are four practical actions for school leaders to experience silence as an accepted and integral part of their daily and weekly leadership work:

1. Use your pause button

Leaders like to talk, usually restricting opportunities and time for others to talk. Typically, a leader talks for most of the meeting time, controlling who talks, when and for how long, and what gets talked about. Competing facts, opinions and ideas fly around the table, sometimes with zero or few explicit agreed outcomes. The leader’s foot is firmly on the accelerator, pressing onward without stopping to think about how well or not they’re leading the meeting, and with what effect on self and others.

Hit your pause button! When we create pauses in a conversation or meeting we provide ourselves with a silent space in which to think about how we are leading and with what impact. Leadership theorist Donald Schön calls this reflection-in-action. His extensive research revealed that few leaders do it. As an example, pausing is a way of being more self-aware while you’re leading in action. It can be brief, a few seconds to reflect on the quality of the interactions, how to further improve these in the next round, how you’ll explain and share your reflection with others after the pause. Your pause could be longer, in which you invite others to quietly reflect on the quality of the interactions and afterward to share their reflections. Intentional pauses provide powerful silences for revealing insights and understandings about ourselves and others.

2. Close your door

Being overly accessible is an occupational hazard for school leaders. It’s a potential double whammy! There’s a risk of burn out and stress when you’re too accessible. You’re constantly dealing with other people and their issues, not empowering them to deal with their problems. You don’t get time to do your core work, leading learning and teaching improvement. On the other hand, if you’re not always accessible there’s a risk of others saying and believing you’re not in touch with your people and their concerns, you’re not sufficiently visible around the school, and what you do in your office is a mystery.

What’s a leader to do? You plan and schedule appointments with yourself for uninterrupted silences each week, when you’ll give yourself quiet time to think about how you lead improvement, what you’ll do, and why you’ll use those strategies. Just as you don’t cancel or forget important appointments with other people, you protect your appointments with and for yourself. You communicate your unavailable times to others, request they respect those times, and you explain why. You inform them of who to see and what to do when you’re unavailable. You enforce your request by not allowing or accepting interruptions – be it someone pounding on your door or begging to see you right now! Otherwise, you’re permitting others to impose disquiet and deny your need for silence to be alone working on an important task, a critical part of your leadership work. Be unavailable, unapologetically!

3. Give your gift

Being present for another person is the greatest gift you can give them. In my Presence blog I talk about the celebrated performance artist Marina Abramovic who demonstrated this gift in a hugely popular exhibition that ran for several months in New York. People queued to sit with her; others surrounded the gallery space observing her sit opposite another person silently looking into their face, while that person looked into her face. No words were spoken. The emotional responses were extraordinary – smiles, tears, bewilderment, anxiety and more. Abramovic’s silent ‘performance’ illustrates the unquestionable power of presence.

Not all leaders are good at presence. They’re busy doing multiple tasks, meeting pressing deadlines, distracted by noise and their devices, focussed on winning, uncomfortable with silence, embarrassed by emotions. Leaders skilled at pulling back from those unhelpful behaviours are more likely to demonstrate presence. When meeting with others they put away their smart phone; they turn their devices to screen saver; they don’t make or take phone calls; they don’t accept interruptions, unless it’s an emergency; they don’t sit behind their desk to distance themselves. Leaders with presence warmly greet and welcome all people at all times, even if a difficult meeting is anticipated. They use culturally appropriate greetings and formalities to acknowledge other cultures; they make eye contact and don’t take copious notes; they pull back during a conversation to listen and understand a different viewpoint and thereby see an issue more clearly.

4. Unwind your brain

A stressful job, such as school leadership, increases a likelihood of anxiety, insomnia and

depression. To reduce stress-related symptoms, Auckland pain specialist Dr Giresh Kanji in his book Brain Connections advocates regular exercise, meditation and saunas. Based on 20 years of research, he believes the combination of these three is a winning combo to reduce stress and promote good health. Using exercise, deep breathing and heat reduces levels of stress chemicals in our bodies and “unwinds” our brains, so that we’re not in a continual state of high alert. Kanji’s combo, in effect, are three ‘silences’ to help empower yourself for doing what’s important to you.

In my work with school leaders I’ve become concerned that too many don’t regularly take time out for their personal well-being. “I’m too busy”, or “It’s the reality of the job”, are frequent excuses by leaders to neglect self. Unwinding has an importance for leaders that’s greater than reducing stress. Exercising, meditating and saunas are silent opportunities for reflection-on-action (Schön, again), when you think about what makes your leadership work worthwhile, how you and others benefit from it, what you might do better or differently in future, your dream and how you’ll articulate it to others.

Using silence in your daily leadership work and in life draws your attention inwards, by opening up your thoughts without distractions. This is when new solutions to pressing problems are uncovered, when new insights about challenging people and situations are revealed, and when you empower yourself to do what’s important for you. Silence is a powerful leadership tool. Use it! It won’t be long before you notice a difference.

Recommended reading

Kagge, E. (2017). Silence: In the age of noise. Penguin Books:UK

Kanji, G. (2019). Brain connections: How to sleep better, worry less and feel happier. Pain Publications: NZ

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Perseus Books: USA

#ErlingKagge #GireshKanji #reflectioninaction #reflectiononaction #silence #stress

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