Say Little and Lead Much

Leaders enjoy many benefits.  People seen as leaders get promoted and opportunities come their way.  Parents whose children respect them as leaders have more functional families.   But how do you begin the process of getting others to see you as a leader?

We have all seen leadership in action.  Perhaps one participant at a meeting emerges as the clear leader of the group.  Or people listen more attentively to one person than to another.  Groups coalesce around the one individual who is regarded as more authoritative than anyone else.

I’m sure you’ve seen parents who enjoy such excellent rapport with their children that obedience is almost automatic.  It is clear that the children view the parents as leaders.  Authentic leadership skills that are effective in a work environment are also effective in a family or social environment.  We just need to know what these skills are.

The first and most important skill is to learn to use words sparingly.  Babbling is a sure way to jettison leadership credibility.  A crucial part of using words sparingly is to do more listening than talking. A great way to achieve this is by doing more asking than telling.  Imagine a parent concerned about his or her teenager’s friends.   If the parent starts shouting or accusing, the child switches off.  However, if instead the parent gently and firmly asks questions, exhibiting real interest and concern, information will eventually flow.

Negotiations follow similar rules.  Many of our interactions with others are really negotiations. Some are formally declared while others are negotiations masquerading as discussions or conversations.  The most common mistake is  to firmly articulate your position at the beginning.  People sometimes do this because they fear being seen as weak or being maneuvered into yielding ground.  Don’t for a moment think the other side is even listening to your opening position; they’re busy planning their own opening lines.

Instead, it is far more effective to draw as many words as possible from the other side by means of asking questions.  “Won’t you start by sharing with me some of your initial thoughts? I’d be interested to hear how you see this.”

This permanent principle of not talking unnecessarily is repeatedly visible in ancient Jewish wisdom.  We certainly think of Samson as more of a doer than a talker, right?

And Samson and his father and mother went down to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah, when a lion roared towards him.  And the Lord’s spirit rested upon him, and he tore it as one would tear a goat, though he had nothing in his hand.  He did not tell his father and mother what he had done.
(Judges 14:5-6)

The first question to consider is why the lion roared only towards Samson (him)? Why does the verse not tell us that the lion roared towards them?  Even if that was so, all three of them went on this excursion together. Why would he need to tell his parents about something they saw?

The answer to the first question lies in the words telling us that they came to the vineyards of Timnah. Remember Samson’s prenatal history. The angel gave instructions regarding his mother and ancient Jewish wisdom tells us that she followed these rules for the rest of her life:

From all that comes out of the grapevine she shall not eat,
and wine or strong drink she may not drink…
(Judges 13:14)

Arriving at the Vineyards of Timnah, Samson’s mother elected to keep distant from the grapes and so she chose to circle around the vineyards with her husband.  Meeting up again with Samson on the other side of the vineyards, he keeps quiet about what occurred and they continued on their mission to Timnah.

There, a negotiation of sorts was about to occur.  A foreigner, Samson, was marrying one of the Philistine women.  Thirty men came in force to intimidate Samson. He proceeds to ask them a question in the form of a riddle.  As the story unfolds, only he and his wife know the answer, so when the men solve the riddle, it is clear to all that his wife betrayed him and that her people did not respect the marital bond.

…Had you not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.
(Judges 14:18)

By not telling his parents, Samson was able to control the situation, setting up his attack on the Philistines.

There is no quicker or more effective way to show leadership than to demonstrate self-discipline.  The poet John Milton wrote a biography of Oliver Cromwell in which he explained that the latter’s military skills and leadership were grounded in self-discipline. “He was a soldier well versed in self-knowledge and whatever enemy lay within—vain hopes, fears, desires—he had either previously destroyed within himself or had long since reduced to subjection.”

This is why self-discipline is regularly voted the most important measure of leadership. Speaking in a measured and thoughtful way is the first proof of self-discipline we encounter in those we meet.


20 thoughts on “Say Little and Lead Much”

  1. I was almost shocked when I got to the sentence of do more asking than telling. In my estimation, that is the downfall of the American family at present. The interaction between parent and child has become more like butler to prince or princess. What would you like for dinner? Would it be okay if the doctor looks down your throat? What do you want us to do today? And those princes and princesses have every expectation of getting what they ask for. But you didn’t let me down as you didn’t go that direction at all.
    You were filled with jewish wisdom again, as usual, and I thak you for your time in sharing these thought tools. I’m blessed by them.

  2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    Dear Johnathan–
    If you do study this and absorb it into your soul, you will discover astonishing success. It also works wonders in marriage but of course you already figured that out.

  3. Thank you Rabbi!
    This speaks directly to several situations my wife and I are walking through right now. I will be studying this until this practice becomes second nature.
    John F.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Anafo
      So good to hear from you-your kind words encourage us greatly.

  4. Your words resonate with me. The sage Hillel used to first try and understand the other person perspective first before presenting one’s own view. I prefer collaborative problem solving to the word negotiation as the latter implies bargaining or bartering . In today’s world people , especially leaders need more self-discipline with words on their devices – less tweeting

    1. Another excellent commentary followed by the audio CD offer, “Perils of Profanity: You Are What You Speak.”
      Which brings to mind of times in the company of other men when someone feels compelled to punctuate his speech with profanity and foul language, it gives me the impression that these are the utterances of an insecure person who is not well grounded, who just eliminated himself as a person that anyone might look up to.

      Another relevant thought comes to mind about something my father told me many years ago, “a babbling brook is usually very shallow, whereas still waters run deep.”

      1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

        Your father’s wisdom percolated to his son, Mark
        We agree that profanity often masks flaws and weaknesses but sometimes it is also true that it has just become a deeply ingrained habit.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Byron–
      I hope this teaching from ancient Jewish wisdom helps you toward huge achievements at work.

  5. sir

    this is indeed brilliant.

    I will used this ideas.

    God bless you, your family and ministry.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Michael-
      I don’t get very excited when readers respond by saying “interesting” but when they say “Useful” I do really find that so gratifying.

  6. I thought your article on what people say was insightful and helpful. We are what we speak. The bible says that our hearts are the well spring of life and it’s true. Thank you for sharing that information with us.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Kindra
      Our most basic means of communication is of course words; babies are born with a faculty for speech that they do not automatically have for ballet, beet farming or bungee-jumping.

  7. Amen to the no babbling advice. I work with teenagers in my church (LDS). For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the “Scoutmaster’s Minute” ever go just a minute. Youth despise it when the adult leaders/teachers become a talking head. What’s sad is often the adults don’t understand why the youth aren’t as interested in coming to church or activities. Sigh…if only they had a Rabbi.

    As always, your wisdom is gratefully received.

    Mike Harris
    Orem, Utah

    PS Samson story is tricky to decipher. I need a Rabbi…again!

    How did the “Lord’s spirit rest upon [Samson]” (Judges 14:6,19;15:14,19? Isn’t he breaking his vow when he goes “down” (Judges 14:5) to the grape vineyards? Moreover, isn’t his marriage outside the covenant? To say nothing about being around dead bodies (Num. 6:3-6)…Yet the story keeps saying the Lord’s spirit was with Samson. How does disobedience bring that blessing. What am I missing?
    In a previous Thought Tool you mention, “Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that during the first half of [Samson’s] life his purpose and mission was defeating the Philistines and protecting Israel from them. During the second part of his life, he largely forgot his mission.” However, it seems even during this first part of his life Samson is breaking his vow yet is blessed.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Mike–
      You and me both live by the adage of never waiting to stop speaking until after people have stopped listening. A speaker who goes overtime is a speaker who didn’t give his audience the respect of carefully preparing his talk.
      There is so much more in that Samson section of Judges than I had space to include. Your pithy quote marks around the word goes ‘down’ is spot on. Any descent mentioned is always spiritual not geographical. In this case, headed ‘down’ to Timnah to contract a doomed marriage which his parents disapproved of was clearly going ‘down’.
      A pleasure hearing from you

  8. Hi Rabbi Lapin:

    Thank you very much for one more in an unending string of profoundly poignant and powerfully pertinent Thought Tool messages.

    I’m reminded that the bucket of the mouth draws from the well of the heart. And there’s nothing I like better than a refreshingly cool drink of crystal clear ancient Jewish wisdom.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Peter–
      Your kind and courteous compliment captivates me.
      The metaphor of water for wisdom is a good one, as in ‘thirsting for knowledge’. There are interesting ancient Jewish clues to Noah’s flood (of water/wisdom) referring to the explosion of knowledge in the 18th century.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Thank you Lynne–
      Mouth control is so terribly difficult for many of us. And that applies to what goes in as well as what comes out. People who are disciplined about what goes in to their mouths are nearly always also more disciplined with what comes out.

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