Silence and the Perfect Leadership Moment

I’ve worked with many wonderful leaders over the years but there was one moment that, for me, represented a perfect example of what leadership is all about.

I spent much of my career at Alcoa, a Fortune 100 metals and mining company.  Alcoa was a principled company. Values like safety, environmental stewardship, and community involvement were not just slogans, they were sincerely lived out every day, and demonstrated actively by the leaders of the company.

Having an employee killed in an industrial accident is heart-breaking, but it is even more tragic when it is YOUR employee.

That’s what happened to my friend Joe. Joe was one of many extraordinary leaders at Alcoa. He was a mountain of a man in both size and heart and he had worked his way up the company ladder to a VP position with a style that was tough yet thoroughly authentic.

Many years ago, a female hourly employee — and one of Joe’s friends from his days in operations — was crushed by a piece of conveying equipment. The weekend accident defied any rational explanation. She was an experienced employee who actually was on the safety committee that wrote the rules for the safe operation of the machine. The conveyor was moving at such a slow speed she easily could have stepped aside to get out of the way. She had crossed strong steel barriers, violating safety protocol, to even get to a place where the accident could have occurred.

And yet, it had happened.  She was gone.  A single mother of three, and a long-time friend of Joe’s, had died on our shop floor.

On Monday morning, an expanded staff meeting had been called to talk about the accident and investigation.

The room was jammed with about 75 employees when Joe entered the room.  He stood in front of the shocked room with his head bowed. The room was so full of tension at that moment.  Finally, Joe spoke.

“I don’t know what to say right now,” he said.  “I think … we … just need to pray for a moment.”

The room fell silent. Many wept.

For me, this was one of the most unexpected and beautiful examples of leadership I have witnessed.  Asking employees to pray?  This was the ultimate gift and gesture, because nothing COULD be said at that moment.  We all felt like crying .  We all needed to be quiet for a minute and pray about this woman and her children in our own way, whatever that meant. We didn’t want to see those pictures. We didn’t want to think about investigations and safety reports.  We needed that one moment to be human and grieve for a life.

To me, this was the most authentic, perfect moment of leadership, even though it was carried out in complete silence. In a world of constant content and chatter, quiet can be stunningly powerful.

Sometimes we are most effective when we are most human. Don’t you agree?

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