Perhaps one of the most difficult things a leader has to do is to be mindful of his/her own thinking. Not just the content and the style, and what is transformed into language, spoken or written, but also the filters, the biases, the traps, the shortcuts. Our heuristic brain allows us to shortcut, to use intuition, bets, rule of thumbs, guesses. It’s a wonderful ability that we have which frees us from the algorithmic, step by step, check it all, be completely safe and sure. But even people who claim to be good at intuition are subject to those possible traps and biases. It would be wonderful to have the ability to rate our own thinking in terms of solidity and robustness. (I sometimes imagine a sort of Trip Advisor for Corporate Thinking where we can give stars not to the outcome but the clarity of thinking)
Little luxury we have in organisational life to reflect, on almost anything. Thanks to those ‘lessons learnt’ we have a chance, but many ‘lessons learnt’ are in fact ‘lessons learnt sessions’, with the emphasis on having the session. Certainly useful and important, usually collective, we need them big time. But, in my view, nothing compares with the individual reflection, the ability to look at oneself, hear oneself, smell oneself, smile at oneself and see our own tricks and our own thoughts playing together in the background.
The thinking brigade inside our brains shapes our emotions and our behaviours. The late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue spoke of ‘thoughts as lenses’ and ‘thoughts in search of action’. I think that we often have also ‘thoughts in search of questions’ since we have learnt to produce a reservoir of answers that seem to be permanently in stand by.
For all those leadership development programmes on offer, all those learning and development packages, all those often ready made answers with an executive and management development brand in the label, nothing can substitute the personal reflection time, with or without help. And as soon as you touch ‘personal reflection’, you touch the most elusive, difficult, challenging, even disruptive ‘human activity’: silence.
I don’t think I have to remind ourselves that our world goes against it. If we don’t fill in our silence quick, we will be restless, may perhaps feel guilty, and may want to rush to ‘do something’. In the West, we have put silence in the same shelf as void, and we think that, in any case, it is something only a few people really live in. Mainly monks, and those New Age meditative people back from a trip to Nepal.
I think that if silence could be package, we could sell it at premium price.
All thoughts come out of silence. The quality of the silence impacts on the quality of the thoughts. The monk Thomas Keating has predictably put it in a religious frame: ‘Silence is the language God speaks, and everything else is a bad translation’.
I think we should aim at good translations. The first, and second, and lots of other lessons on silence, are actually free: practice it. Then, after a reasonable preamble in silence, try to hear, feel and smell what you have just said to your team in that very long and noisy Leadership Team meting. That reflection may surprise you. Then go back to silence. Anything inside the sandwich made of silence, tastes very differently.