04 Mar 2021 18:45 IST

The power of silence in leadership

If you want people to listen, stop talking. Embrace calmness in conflicts, and respond instead of react

Last week I completed twelve years of practicing a daily habit — about an hour of meditation — 25-30 minutes in the morning and again in the evening. I consider this the single most important habit of my life that has helped me, both personally and professionally. I’ve briefly referred to this in an earlier article in this series, but thought it merited a deeper look.

At TalentEase, where we work with children and young adults on leadership skills and values, every single session begins with a few minutes of what we call SSS — Silence, Stillness, Solitude. How can this habit be a power habit for us as business leaders?

What?

At its simplest, it is keeping the body silent and still. Solitude, of course reflects to the fact that you spend this time alone. Even in a group meditation the real meditator revels in her solitude. But the bigger challenge is keeping our minds still. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa referred to our minds being like trees filled with monkeys jumping from one branch to another. The idea in SSS is to bring the mind to stillness. Most meditation experts recommend the use of a mantra or single word or phrase that is constantly repeated during the period of the meditation.

The intention is not to focus on the mantra, but to use it much as a mother would use a pacifier to quiet a crying child. Eknath Easwaran would use the example of the temple elephant who as it parades through town, is busy grabbing coconuts and bananas from shops along the way, with its constantly swishing trunk. The mahout to prevent this mischief, places a small bamboo stick in the trunk of the elephant. Thus occupied, the trunk does no damage. In the same way, the mantra attempts to bring our mind to stillness.

How?

The only way to approach this habit, is as a discipline. It cannot be a when-convenient habit. The daily discipline is an integral part. We cannot do this based on whether we feel like meditating or not, whether we’re tired or not. It has to become something that is the priority of our day. Of course, those of us with busy schedules and continuous travel must adapt. Sometimes, you may spend your silence time on a flight or in a cab, or in the lobby while you’re waiting for a meeting to start.

The other important attitude with which we approach this habit, is without expectations. Especially for business leaders like us, this is anathema. We run our businesses, our teams with outcome as our middle name. We prize results over efforts. We demand metrics. But the silence-habit has to be approached for itself — not for anything it can give you. So, to come to it expecting levitation or visions or wisdom-laden insights is to trivialise the practice and the way it can transform us.

The other approach is simplicity. As human beings and especially for those from the business world, we are suspicious of the simple, often addicted to the complex. Therefore, a practice that just asks us to sit still, be silent and do nothing but repeat a word continuously, can seem too simple for us. And therein lies its power. Simple, of course, does not mean easy. But if we can only allow it, this time of silence itself will give us the strength to sustain it.

The man I consider my silence-time guru is Father John Main, a Benedictine monk who himself learnt the practice from his Indian guru Swami Satyananada. Father Main would summarise the habit thus: “The Silence is there within us. What we have to do is to enter into it, to become silent, to become the silence. The purpose of meditation and the challenge of meditation is to allow ourselves to become silent enough to allow this interior silence to emerge.”

Why?

It is perhaps the biggest underestimation that this is a habit for relaxation and fitness. Or that it helps us deal with stress. Those benefits are real, but hardly scratch the surface. By quietening both body and mind, the silence allows our spirit to breathe. There’s a story told of a Japanese athlete who continued to run his race even though he’d fractured his leg. Asked at the end how he could do something humanly impossible, he replied: “We tend to think of ourselves as bodies that happen to have a spirit. In reality we are spirit that happens to have a body.” Within that response is the wisdom behind the practice. That it allows us to tap into the immense power of our spirit — a power we rarely use or are even aware of. As Lao Tzu would say: “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.”

This truth is independent of religion. It transcends it. How does this power help us in our everyday lives as leaders? Let me share a few ways it has helped me.

Seeking empathy

In interactions, in conversations when we normally tend to judge, label, assume things about people, focus on what divides or separates us, I would often find spirit-power beckoning me to rise beyond that and instead see what unites, empathise, and seek to understand. Often in the heat of a negotiation or conflict, when there is the urge to hit back or put down the other, spirit power would nudge me to pause and respond instead of reacting.

In the middle of chaos, when deadlines have gone bust, reliable team members are suddenly giving up, business assumptions go horribly wrong, spirit-power has moved me into a circle of calm. It helps me see the bigger picture. It helps me get perspective. It removes illusions around problems. It empowers me to stay positive.

Fight against ego

And finally, it is one of the best ways to fight the battle against the ego. If we can define the perfect leader as one who has conquered ego, then this is the weapon of that daily fight. Silence time allows us to identify the illusions about ourselves, to feel comfortable in being rather than identifying ourselves constantly by our doing. As that unlikely wise sage Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj would say: “It is always the false that makes you suffer. The false desires and fears, the false values and ideas, the false relationships between people. Abandon the false and you are free of pain; truth makes you happy, truth liberates.” And again: “A quiet mind is all you need. All else will happen rightly, once your mind is quiet. As the sun on rising makes the world active, so does self-awareness affect changes in the mind.

Power of silence

In the light of calm and steady self-awareness, inner energies wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.” This ability to be, to face the truth, provides immense power and possibility to a leader. Situations, people, crises — all are viewed with a different lens when you live and lead out of the power of your silence time. In our roles as leaders,we spend a lot of time talking and it is ironical but true, that the impact of our leadership is powered from the times we are silent and still.

Perhaps it is best to close this refection with what Swami Satyananda told Father John Main: “To meditate you must become silent. You must be still. And you must concentrate. In our tradition we know only one way in which you can arrive at that stillness, that concentration. We use a word that we call a mantra. To meditate, what you must do is to choose this word and then repeat it, faithfully, lovingly and continually. That is all there is to meditation. I really have nothing else to tell you. And now we will meditate.”