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The Leadership Gifts of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

Why is it that the most important person in the room is often the one who says the least?

I admit it.  I’m a talker.  I go into a room, and I have a need to fill up the silence-;sometimes with chatter, sometimes with questions, and sometimes with an intense monologue.  For whatever reason--cultural or otherwise--silence makes me a bit uncomfortable.  To me, silence implies that nothing is happening. 

Leadership implies action, movement, and discussion. Leadership, for many, does not imply silence.  It implies taking charge of the situation and making something happen.

That said, I’ve found in all my studies that the best leaders have an appreciation of silence.  Not only do these leaders appreciate silence for itself, but they also know how to use it as a tactical tool-;as an opportunity to judge where things are moving to get a sense of what’s happening. 

If misused, silence can be disruptive.  You as a leader must be careful as to how you use silence.  Misused silence could reflect indifferent, boredom, and even ineptitude.  Used well, silence can reflect keen interest, focus, and a sense of your presence. 

Good leaders understand that a pause is often essential. 

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the person in charge is the one who says the least?  As an academic--and my situation may be exceptional--whenever I’m in the room with university presidents and provosts, I notice that while there is a lot chatter going on around them, they sit in a bubble in silence.  The more they keep silent, the more that others try to fill the void with ideas, information, and discussion. 

I have a friend who served as a CEO for a number of years, and by any measure, he hardly said a word.  He was, to say the least, short on words.  He was the last to speak, and when he spoke up, he said very little.  His silence was, to a certain degree, a source of his authority.  It seemed that the more he kept mouth shut, the more that people thought that whatever he did say was more profound.  For the most part, when he did speak, he did have something of substance to say.

One figure in history who mastered of the art of silence was George Washington. According to his biographer, Joseph Ellis, Washington had “the gift of silence -the ability to remain silent above any occasion while all around him were ‘squirming under the social pressure to fill the silence with chatty conversation.’ Here, his silence permitted him to preside above the contentious debates.”

Whenever Washington is discussed in my leadership workshops, someone invariably points out that maybe Washington was silent because he wasn’t the most intellectual person in the room, compared to Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest of the crew.  But I would argue that Washington understood silence as a tactic.

What is the role of a leader?  Often, it is to collect information, integrate information, and bring about a certain sense of harmony.  To do that, leaders have to know how to create the gentle gaps of silence that Washington did between himself and his colleagues. 

Between the words, between the actions, between the political strategies, leaders must create silence. Silence allows for ideas to be absorbed. Silence allows for emotions to settle. Silence allows for bonding and healing. Silence allows people to sit unthreatened and unchallenged.

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Saying nothing…sometimes says the most.” Silence can be a powerful tool.  Leaders who take time to create quiet periods can give people a feeling of calm and confidence. It’s an exercise in self and organizational reflection that inspires thoughtful action. Leaders that can appreciate the value of silence can move forward and sustain momentum by taking pause.

Last updated: Oct 29, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

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