Many years ago I walked with a small cohort of young leaders along the north side of Lake Macatawa in Holland, Mich. We were guests at Herman Miller’s Marigold Lodge, a gentle place.
Our host was a gracious and sensitive man, a well-known leader in the commercial furniture industry. That evening he shared with us several hard-won insights into leading organizations and the burdens of visionary leadership. In a word, he said, leadership is about suffering. A genuine leader, Max told us, bears pain quietly, often suffering silently in their soul.
Max was not speaking of the ache leaders feel for the suffering of others. That is the heartache of compassionate listening. He spoke not of consoling employees through divorce and chemotherapy and corporate downsizing. Max was not drawing attention to the emotional toll leaders inevitably will pay for shouldering the private struggles and public worries carried into their office by the folks they lead.
Rather, Max was inviting us to reflect together on the acute pain which always accompanies intense personal criticism. He spoke of unwarranted, blinding attacks from behind as that which most deeply wounds and hurts leaders — those serving others by going up front to lead. Leaders, Max taught us, are cheered wildly from behind until they disappoint. Then the sting of betrayal by those they had called, and would still call, friends and supporters burns deep and lasts long.
The salve for this searing pain is not always found in “talking it out.” Our many words, Max recalled, shared liberally with those who care for us — but would never think to challenge us — often do little more than indulge our own self-pity. Much talking, much repeating the sordid story, much sharing of the damnable details — all of this “sharing” is toxic. Keep up all this talking, Max warned us, and the soul of the leader will likely drown in an overflowing pool of withdrawal, self-accusation, debilitating doubt and resentment.
Drawing on ancient wisdom, Max urged we practice reticence. It is not by our talking more but rather by sinking our souls into silence that healing will come. The discipline of silence quiets and calms leaders before, during, and following biting, baseless attacks. If leaders learn to bear the pain of personal criticism quietly, even the most hurtful words will fade.
To write of this shoreline moment 15 years ago is not to claim mastery in the practice of reticence. Then our mentor was 15 years older than I am now. And, he was still learning to hold in contemplative silence hurts etched deeply by friends and colleagues. Yet I have tried to follow Max’s lead, and in so doing I have experienced some grace, grace sufficient for a slow steadying of my mind and my soul.
How are we to explain the healing power of habitual reticence? How is it possible that the distressing cacophony of many insults and vicious attacks fades to nothing when absorbed by our steady silence? Perhaps it is this. When we are truly silent, then deep from within our own heart we begin to hear the panicked heartbeat of our accusers and betrayers.
And when we listen closely to the beating of their hearts, we are no longer listening to our own. When wounded, we are tempted to hear only our own hearts beating wildly. Yet if we calm and steady ourselves, listening instead for the fear and worry of others, then perhaps we become just a little more like Jesus.
WILLIAM L. MANGRUm of Durango, Colo., is member-at-large for the Western Colorado Presbytery.