Space, silence and the substance of leadership

Paul Heagen Purposeful Leadership & Living Leave a Comment

Child: How many stars are in the sky?
Parent: I don’t know. Shall we count them?

They will be there a while. As context, our home-sweet-home Milky Way galaxy alone is considered to have 200 billion stars. So, how many galaxies are out there? Astronomers using data from the Hubble Telescope recently upped their estimate of 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe to a whopping two trillion

I maybe can get my head around a few hundred billion, but two trillion galaxies, each with billions of stars? 

Now, here is something else to consider: What about the space in which all that exists?

And what does all this star-gazing have to do with leadership? 

The universe cannot exist, nor would its creation and expansion have any elbow-room, were it not for the expanse of space. We tend to think of space as lacking substance when it is actually a collaborator, a needed precedent, of creation. 
Leadership, at least in terms of developing people and fostering innovation and creativity, is not so much about filling the space — having the answers, filling in the blanks — as it is creating space for the ideas and energy of others.

Or even within yourself.

In our stimulus-saturated world, we can get agonizingly uncomfortable with “space,” particularly as measured by time. Sit in a meeting and see how long anyone is really comfortable with even a few seconds of silence during a discussion. As a leader, ask a question and feel the ants crawl if you don’t get a response right away. We measure our value on content, not space. 

Sure, there is a time to act, but one of the greatest disciplines and gifts of a leader is not to fill the quiet but to create it with a well-placed question, and not accept the first answer as the only. Creating space allows others to feel safe to offer ideas. They feel the weight of the issue. They recognize a role for themselves, not just responding to direction. It is in space is where ideas, creativity, and critical thinking flourish. Create space and your people — not always you — will fill it.

Sometimes the point of a question is not the answer, but the process of exploring what might be the answers. If you answer all the questions yourself, you’ll fall victim to the convenient or familiar answer, and never really know what else is out there. 

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