When it’s Time to be Quiet

Teaching your children to ride a bike is no easy task. It can be mentally challenging and, frankly, emotionally draining. You must deliver clear instructions, be patient as they wobble along and prepare for them to fall at any moment. It is, as some say, an existential crisis of parental proportions.

The most difficult part is releasing your grip on the bike and watching them ride off however short or long it may last. Within that moment, two things occur: First, your children get their first taste of freedom, finally taking off on their own wheels. Secondly, you get your first taste of fear that they are now able to travel farther and faster than ever before.

At that moment, you realize a few crucial points in the process. If you don’t give clear instructions, they won’t know what to do. If you don’t let go, they will never learn to ride the bike on their own. If they don’t fall down, they won’t learn how to get back up and try again.

All of these stages happen in an instant. Yet, they make critical lessons for both parents and leaders alike. If you want to see others soar, sometimes you have to lean in and speak up. However, what is often more difficult is learning when not to open your mouth.

If there is any topic that is unpopular in leadership, it’s learning to be quiet. The practice itself seems counterintuitive as a leader. Where being quiet is often tied to introversion, it is an essential skill for leaders. We do not need to vocalize every critique or each way we think the job should be done. That is micromanaging, not leading. Teams are often their best when we don’t dictate their every step.

Some lessons are best learned when we simply choose silence.

A friend of mine says it like this: “My job is to create clarity around where we’re going. My team is responsible for how we get there.” Many leaders, particularly inexperienced ones, try to do both. They want to determine where to go and tell everyone else how to get there. In my experience, the best decision is to offer the clarity and focus necessary for those around you to agree on the same destination. Then you, the leader, can get out of the way.

Insecure and inexperienced leaders have a tendency to make everything about them. They don’t know how to transfer ownership of outcomes to others, although they may fool themselves into thinking they do. Often they wait for the first sign of trouble and then swoop back in to save the day.

However, a secure leader allows others to succeed and own the accomplishment. Confident leaders also allow their team to sometimes fall. By not allowing anyone to fail or mess up, you are essentially making mistakes unacceptable. This only creates  fear-based leadership. Secure leaders know when to step in and when to step back.

If you don’t give others the room to fall, they will never learn from their failures. If you never allow others to succeed, you will only limit their capacity to discover their full potential.

A parent’s job is to raise strong, healthy and independent children who can grow up to be productive members of society. A leader’s job is to help others improve their abilities, interests and instincts so they can make the right decisions in their most challenging moments. But to do that, you must learn when to speak up and when to remain silent.

At the end of the day, being a leader is less about guiding an employee’s every move and more about teaching them how to ride for themselves. Sure, there will be moments when we will need to step in and speak up. But if we can learn the right moments to be quiet, they can learn how to get the job done. Strong, healthy leaders know that failures and mistakes are necessary opportunities for growth.