The Silent Treatment

Few people would ever call their boss a saint. But the great exception might be Mother Teresa, who presided over a vast charitable empire, running 500-plus missions in more than 100 countries.

Now, she’s the subject of a new book: Mother Teresa, CEO: Unexpected Principles for Practical Leadership.

The book’s authors, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust, discuss eight fundamental principles of Teresa-style leadership: “dream it simple, say it strong”; “to get to the angels, deal with the devil”; “wait! then pick your moment”; “embrace the power of doubt”; “discover the joy of discipline”; “communicate in a language people understand”; “pay attention to the janitor”; and “use the power of silence.”

Peter Drucker would have had something to say about each of these points, but what caught our eye from Mother Teresa, CEO was a passage about communication:

“Mother Teresa did not know many languages, but when it came to communicating, she was an expert. If there were such a thing as a universal language, it would be what Mother Teresa spoke. The purity and simplicity with which she communicated transcended language barriers. She spoke with her voice, her eyes, her ears, and her heart. Her most eloquent way of communicating was through her smile.”

We’ve noted before—and more than once—that Drucker considered communication to be a delicate and frequently failed endeavor. But what the passage on Mother Teresa points out with particular clarity is how often communication can be effective in the absence of words.

Photo credit: Pink Sherbert Photography

“The ‘silent language’—that is, the gestures, the tone of voice, the environment all together, not to mention the cultural and social referents—cannot be dissociated from the spoken language,” Drucker wrote. “In fact, without them the spoken word has no meaning and cannot communicate.”

[EXPAND More]Drucker offered an example: “It is not only that the same words, e.g. ‘I enjoyed meeting you,’ will be heard as having a wide variety of meaning. Whether they are heard as warm or as icy cold, as endearment or as rejection, depends on their setting in the silent language, such as the tone of voice or the occasion. More important is by that by themselves, that is, without being part of the total configuration of occasion . . . the phrase has no meaning at all. . . . To paraphrase an old proverb of the human-relations school: ‘One cannot communicate a word; the whole man always comes with it.’”

Do you think just about the words you use to communicate in the workplace, or do you consider the impact your “silent language” has?[/EXPAND]