“Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.” — Cicero
You don’t have to have something to say constantly.
You don’t always need to be on.
Sometimes, the power of silence can convey something greater.
And sometimes, your audience simply might not want to hear from you.
In our digital world—especially now, with ubiquitous video calls and presentations—we want to try to fill the void of silence with sound. We go on and on and on, blasting each other with a constant flow of words, giving them little time to absorb what we say and giving ourselves less time to consider what we’ll say next.
We seem to be judged by how much rather than what we have to say.
Great leaders practice an economy of words and capture attention by saying things more powerfully because they speak less frequently. And when they do, they pick their words carefully.
Consider the anecdote about Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president. He was commonly known as "Silent Cal" because of his reticence to speak. One time, at a dinner party a woman seated next to him said, "Mr. Coolidge, I bet my friend I could get you to say more than two words."
Coolidge paused a moment, then gave the perfect and succinct reply: "You lose."
At this very moment, we’re witnessing leadership that is melting down because he’s being held accountable for the things he tweets. When a world leader spends more time on a digital platform and fretting about said platform rather than on the tragedy befalling his nation, we should realize how bereft of empathy and leadership he is.
Just yesterday, David Brooks wrote:
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
Some of the greatest speeches of our leaders have been born out of tragedy. And the emotion and thought they inspire is often captured in their terseness.
Ronald Reagan addressed a shocked nation in the wake of the Challenger disaster for less than five minutes.
The most iconic is the Gettysburg Address, which acknowledged our pain and the need to forge ahead together in just 275 words.
And sometimes, leaders just need to show up and listen, as George W. Bush did when he showed up at Walter Reed Hospital and let a soldier’s mother berate him.
Being a leader requires us to choose our words very carefully as we decide what to say.
But also requires us to determine when we ought to remain silent.
“I will begin to speak, when I have that to say which had not better be unsaid.” — Cato the Younger
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.