This past week, after continuing to speak following a sore throat, I managed to lose my voice. It started off that I just sounded funny, but by the end of the day, all I could do was whisper. As I tried to continue my normal day I began to notice how incredibly difficult it was to communicate. Physically, I felt the strain in my muscles as I tried to produce audible sounds. Sometimes I would try to write things down, but I could never write fast enough to carry on a conversation with someone who was speaking with me. There was so much I couldn’t explain. Sometimes, I had to rely on others who knew me best to expand on my ideas. It was definitely frustrating to feel that as a leader, I had lost my ability to communicate effectively with my staff, my students, and my community.
Although exasperated, as I spent my afternoon noticing how others responded to my whisper. It was funny how as they worked to hear my soft words, their faces would show such intensity as they listened. I would find they often whispered back to me. It seemed funny to have such quiet conversations when I was the only one who couldn’t talk. Not only were the conversations quieter, but they were also slower. As I had to work to get even breathy words to come out, their pace would slow as well, as if to give me time to regain some strength. I had never considered these things before, but it made me think about how leadership can be done be done in a manner that is screaming, but truly effective leaders often lead with a whisper.
Whispering leadership, like the act of vocal whispering, requires a whole different set of muscles. It requires incorporation of other nuances if it is to be accurately understood.
- Rather than shouting demands of compliance, a leader whispers a suggestion of best practice to let others own the practice. This kind of leader puts in a framework of expectations without mandating each step. It requires helping others discover how “best practices” fit within their current skillset and have ownership as they assimilate the ideas into their beliefs and philosophy rather than just “following the leaders rules”.
- Whispering leaders talk less. When one must whisper, the physical act is exhausting, so you use less words when you do have a message to share.Instead of using words to tell others what to do, effective leaders whisper desired behavior through their actions. The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is so important. People are much likely to “do as you do” rather than “do as you say”. When you model the expectation, others can see how it works. Visual models are powerful learning tools. Not to mention, if you are only telling someone what to do, it creates a perfect opportunity for sabotage as their implementation is the only barometer of success.
- Whispering leaders listen more and watch for the reactions of the ones they are communicating. They have to be perceptive to those you are trying to communicate with to see if they understood your intended message. Since the focus is on others to own ideas as their own, it is critical to watch the implementation. If the message is not clear, provide additional clarity. Give feedback on implementation and help the practice grow. The minute someone feels success in a new way of doing things, that alone is self-motivating to continue the practice.
I’ve worked for leaders in the past who had to literally and figuratively “shout” their authority. Let’s face it, if you have to “yell your leadership” to make your point, something is wrong. Whether it is with your ideas or your relationships with those you lead, this type of leadership merely creates compliant workers rather than engaged followers. People who are simply obedient to leadership are likely to demonstrate compliance only when monitored, walk away when given the opportunity, or in worse case scenarios, outwardly rebel if they go long enough without having their needs for autonomy met.
Whispering leadership makes the growth of the organization about those you are trying to lead, rather than the leader. It takes grit, grace, and growth mindset to have the patience to lead with a whisper than rush to accomplish things more quickly with a shout. However, because it also takes more intense listening to hear a whisper, the ideas are less likely to be forgotten. Whispering leadership is how you grow an organization and create a legacy that will stand the test of time.