The Power of Silence

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Our world is very noisy and very busy. In fact the world is so loud, it’s hard for leaders to find the space for reflection and thinking. The way we fill up our world with noise and activity, you’d think we’re actually afraid of silence.
image Consider this: most of us wake to an alarm and turn on the television to get the news of the day while we dress and eat. We then get into a car and listen to the radio for “traffic, weather, and updates on the 8’s,” followed by entry into a noisy work space filled with telephones, meetings, and perhaps even more media. If you work in an office, there’s email, video, and smartphones. At the end of the day, we’re back in the noisy car to a home where, in most American homes at least, the television is on until bedtime. There’s very little time or space in the entire day that’s quiet enough for a person to be alone with their own thoughts. Time spent in silence or at least low noise levels, therefore, has to be consciously scheduled and quiet space has to be carefully planned.

We need “quiet time” away from the noise just like we need sleep and food. In the September 25, 2013 edition of Psychology Today, healthy lifestyle author Meg Selig describes the physiological response to excessive noise as triggering a stress response:

Why is excessive noise to hazardous to your physical health? The reason is that noise causes a stress response. You hear a loud sound, and a stress cascade begins—adrenalin is released, blood vessels constrict, muscles tense, and blood pressure rises. We are not fully in control of this stress response: “Even though noise may have no relationship to danger, the body will respond automatically to noise as a warning signal.” 

In light of this kind of physiological, and even psychological, response what is the imperative for leaders? Put simply, control the noise in your life and make time to think. Excess noise leads to higher stress levels, which in turn leads to a distracted leader who won’t make good decisions, and is much more likely to lose composure. Maintaining composure, or recovering it quickly when human weakness leads to an occasional mistake, it’s a crucial leadership skill.

Time spent away from the noisy world allows leaders the opportunity to do the one thing they’re actually paid to do: think. That quiet thinking time is not merely “me” time, but time spent in active self-evaluation and organizational evaluation. We don’t always live up to our own standards, and if we don’t spend time in critically evaluating ourselves against our own standards (and our boss’ standards), we may never know whether we’re making the grade. It’s easy to allow events to consume our time and mental energy; it takes leaders to devote that energy to planning and evaluating the organization and oneself.

The idea that leaders need quiet time for reflection is not just my idea. As a student at the Eisenhower School at NDU it was my privilege to hear many highly successful people speak. The two dozen or so senior government officials & military officers, as well as executives from industry all had a similar habits: most were early risers and most used that early morning time for (among other things) reflection. In the quiet of the early morning, they set goals, evaluated themselves and their organization against those goals, read, and planned their day.

No matter how or when you do it, finding time away from the noise is crucial for leaders’ health, and their effectiveness.