Last week, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said four words from the bench -- his first in seven years of listening to oral arguments. Entrepreneurs can learn a lot from him.
Clarence Thomas is legendary for his silence. According to court observers, it’s been nearly seven years since he spoke from the bench. His silence has been attributed to a number of factors--from basic courtesy, to a possible discomfort with speaking, to a reluctance to enter the fray with his colleagues.
Last week, a transcript appeared with four words attributed to him: “well he did not.” In context, Thomas was thought to be saying that just because a lawyer had an Ivy League degree did not imply that he was qualified. In legal circles, Thomas’ utterance—whatever it may have meant--was big news.
Those four words raise an important question: When should a leader keep his or her own counsel? When should a leader take up the role of observer and listener?
Communication and Leadership
Many leaders are gregarious, outgoing people. Even if a leader is a natural introvert, he or she has probably found a way to become comfortable talking to other people—peers, colleagues, investors, and subordinates—and no longer has to mentally psyche themselves up for each encounter. A leader gets used to talking, and communication, either by voice or by email, becomes second nature, regardless of one’s upbringing or training.
Sometimes, in the words of the immortal Joe Jones, a leader can talk too much. Just because you are the leader doesn’t mean that you have to spend the day in entertainment mode, regaling others with your funny stories and “this-reminds-me” asides. You don’t have to be the center of attention in meetings—or while walking down the hall, for that matter. Everything that goes on in the office doesn’t have to be about you, nor should it be.
Taking time to create silence is crucial to leadership. While leadership is about execution and getting things done, it also requires time to pause and reflect. Silence allows for ideas to be absorbed. Silence allows for sometimes-hot emotions to settle. Silence allows for bonding and healing, and allows people to sit unthreatened and unchallenged.
Smart leaders know how to create these gentle gaps both for themselves and for their colleagues. Creating silence simply requires stepping away from routine. You want to create a period where conversation and interaction recede, giving people a chance to relax, reflect, and recharge.
This isn’t to say that you have to sit there, still as the Sphinx, taking it all in and saying nothing. If you’re not careful, the mystery of silence can be seen as testimony to your ineptitude and failure of leadership. As a leader, you don’t want this respite to turn into an extended siesta. Constant reflection and contemplation can drag down your team, making it harder to get things done. Silence can shape a period of reflection, but too much silence on your part can lead others speculate, perhaps erroneously, about what you are thinking.
Sometimes there is a lot to learn from piping down and taking a quiet approach. Like Clarence Thomas, you may find that you learn a lot. Or as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
SAMUEL BACHARACH is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. @samuelbacharach