Leadership And Listening

“The more you practice silence on the outside…the easier it will be to get to silence on the inside.” by Dr. Jessica Lagrone

I’ve known many people who call themselves bird watchers. They spend intentional time in nature sitting as quietly as possible, catching sight (or song) of a winged trophy or two. Some bird watchers even identify birds by sight, flight or song, honing their skills of identification and keeping lists of the birds they’ve seen over their lifetime.

I’m not a bird watcher. Instead, I would call myself a “leader watcher.” I love to observe leadership in action. Since God made each of us unique individuals, our leadership styles are unique as well. Some leaders charge ahead to affect change immediately, while others build consensus before making headway. I’ve heard leaders described as healers, while others are known as change-agents.  

When I think of some of the leaders I’ve admired the most, I often think of their demeanor more than their directives. These leaders can keep a team calm in crisis through their own serene bearing, like a pilot flying unbothered through turbulence. They do not “get their feathers ruffled” easily. When they meet with someone, they spend more time listening than talking, gathering up all the information needed before giving an insightful response. They are not the first person to retort or defend during a meeting, but when they speak up, everyone leans in. People refer to them as a “deep well” or compliment their “non-anxious presence.” 

I once sat with an older woman whose leadership I admired and asked how she became this kind of rare bird. “To be a leader is first to be a listener,” she told me. “Develop the spiritual discipline of silence, and it will become second nature in your leadership as well.” 

Spiritual disciplines were something I was familiar with, but most of them involved doing things like prayer, fasting or reading Scripture. Silence is different. It involves not doing. And it made me uncomfortable. “Learn to sit in silence before God,” my leader-friend told me as she nudged me to try my own wings, “and you will have learned so much that will guide you forward in life.” 

Silence was plentiful while I was sitting in her office. I lapped it up like someone dying of thirst. But when I returned home, silence was scarce. There was a noisy toddler orbiting my every move and a phone buzzing with texts and calls. Even if I sat still for a moment, the laundry and dishes and dust bunnies seemed to shout me down, calling me to get up and take care of the long list of never-ending needs.

“What’s the quietest place in your life?” my leader-friend asked me. I thought for a minute. Not my office. Not my bedroom. Not even the bathroom, which those who have small children know is anything but private. I thought about the last time I had experienced real solitude. It was in my car, driving home from work. I had pulled into the garage and sat for a moment to hear the end of the news story on the radio. I turned the car off, but instead of going in, I just sat for a moment. It was the quietest quiet I had heard in a long time, so I just sat still for a few minutes and breathed deeply.

“Okay,” she said when I told her, “let’s say your car is your cathedral, your monastic cell. Go out to your garage, even if you’re not going anywhere, and sit in your car for a while. Just be sure it’s turned off.”  

So, I tried it. The car was quiet, but somehow the noise followed me—it wasn’t the children (still in the house) or the cell phone (turned off)—now the noise was in me. It was like my to-do list followed me, stretching from the immediate to the eternal.

I went back to my friend: “It didn’t work. I’m a failure at this silence thing.” 

She laughed and told me that’s absolutely what happens to everyone. Then she told me about the three levels of silence. There’s silencing the noises on the outside, silencing the noises on the inside and silencing the will before God. 

The first one is probably the easiest, even if you have to hide in your car to find it. While most of us surround ourselves with noise even when alone, it’s pretty simple to turn off the noise and eventually find a quiet space. But once you get everything quiet outside, everything inside sees its chance to finally get your attention with all of the messages you’ve been drowning out. That’s normal. Simply silence the inner talk and begin again. It may be for just two minutes the first time, but bit by bit, the silence will grow. The more you practice silence on the outside, she said, the easier it will be to get to silence on the inside. 

“And silence of the will?” I asked. “That’s the whole point,” she said, “to be able to sit before God without asking, longing or needing. Just to be with Him.”

I wondered when the last time was that I sat with God without a barrage of requests. Prayer time was so hard to come by, the time so short, and I needed to make sure I fit everything in. It was tempting to begin with a few words of praise and then get straight to the requests: “While I have you here, there’s a long list of things I need you to get busy fixing in the world.” 

God’s will was mysterious and unknown, while my will was pretty obvious, especially if you listened in on my prayer time. If God wasn’t quick with His answers, I was glad to share a few pointers on how to run the world. Instead, as I got comfortable with the uncomfortable levels of silence, I was learning to enjoy the quiet of His presence; To let Him know that “thy will be done” was enough for me, whether it matched my plans or not. This state of surrender wasn’t natural to me, but it was the beginning of the “undivided heart” the psalmist sought in Psalm 86:11 (NIV). Even if the world around me was rippling with chaos, my heart could be a clear and undisturbed pool reflecting God’s presence, if only for a few minutes. 

This practice of silence with God made it easier to sit in places of silence with the people God gave me as well. When someone sat in my office telling me their struggles, I didn’t feel as eager to interrupt with the first quick-fix solution that came to mind. When my team at work brainstormed thoughts for our next project together, I was more able to listen to all of the ideas around the table before summarizing and guiding us to the next steps. When I sat with my children, I didn’t feel as anxious to jump in with parental wisdom before fully hearing the condition of their hearts. 

God’s calling to listen for His “still small voice” can shape more than our spiritual journey; it can shape our way of being in the world. While I began by silencing my knee-jerk reactions—noises, thoughts, my own will with God—the lasting effect was that I could listen better to what was going on beneath the surface in my spaces of leadership. 

I’m thankful for the heart of the leader who took me under her wing to help guide me toward leadership and listening. The connection was surprising at first, but pouring into it has become one of my favorite leadership practices.