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The Blog

Leadership & The Power of Silence

One of the consistent challenges that I hear many leaders grappling with is this: everyone wants them to solve problems, come up with solutions, know all the answers.

Some might argue that all of these are, in fact, the responsibility of a leader.  To some extent they’d be right. But we do ourselves – and our leaders – a grave injustice when we expect them to have all of the answers, all of the time.

Sometimes, leaders need to stand in silence. Sometimes, leaders do better when they bear witness.

Let me explain.

A big part of leadership is recognizing and solving problems, for sure. Another big part of leadership, however, is EMPOWERING others to recognize and solve those same problems.

If, as a leader, you are continually providing answers, coming up with solutions, solving problems, you are denying others the opportunity to develop their own problem-solving muscle. Moreover, you’re setting up a system that is doomed to fail. Why? Because if you are the only one solving problems, then at some point when you are not available (and trust me, there will be a time when you are not available), everything will go to hell in a hand-basket (it’s a quaint but apt metaphor, I think!).

So what’s to be done? If solving problems isn’t serving as well as we’d like it to, what do we as leaders do instead? What’s another tool that we can reach for?

We can “bear witness”.

When we bear witness, we are silent. We watch. We take in what’s going on and discern. We notice what’s happening, without jumping in to solve. And, by holding ourselves back, there’s a shift that happens before our very eyes. The trick is to hold back long enough to allow the shift to happen. When it does, the shift looks like folks solving problems, finding answers, discovering solutions ON THEIR OWN.

The trick is knowing when to put your two cents worth in to the mix, and allowing your two cents to be no more and no less than what is needed to nudge folks forward. In other words, when you discern that your input is needed, give a nugget or two, without giving the complete solution.

When you bear witness, you share leadership. You recognize and lean into the skills of those around you, and allow those skills to augment – and be augmented by – your own. Now, problem-solving becomes a little less burdensome. It’s not just for you to do.

Bottom-line: yes, as a leader you bear responsibility for ensuring that problems get solved. This, however, doesn’t mean that you, yourself, have to do the actual solving. Instead, stop. Bear witness. Allow those around you to step up to the plate. And revel in the magic of shared leadership.

Tracy Harvie