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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  • Incredibly touching and beautifully told story to reach your conclusion Mark. Thank you.

  • Karen Bice

    Great post, Mark, about a difficult experience for anyone or any leader to deal with.

  • That’s amazing. And you’ve shown what many in a digital, hurry-up world need to know: Without the humanity, nothing ever happens.

  • Anonymous

    I firmly believe you have a calling on your life Mark. So many rant and rave about the rapid expansion of soical networking being dehumanizing but you demonstrate the exact opposite. We are all just people sharing moments of our life together. And as your story demonstrates, sometimes just sharing our silence together can be a transforming moment.

  • A great example for all leaders and any who might find themselves in those heart breaking moments when it is best to acknowledge the power that exists beyond words. So glad I found this blog!

  • Kevin Malmos

    I agree. All too often we get caught up in the mechanics of managing and leading and emotion is pushed aside or seen as a weakness. Leadership is situational. In the situation you described, connecting on both a human and emotional level was the right thing to do.

  • Mark, I was just telling someone today about how much I like your blog, and this post is a perfect example of why.

    True leaders are indeed the most human among us, and this is a great reminder. Can I pry a little and ask what made you think of it now? I’m guessing there’s a second story here…

    Thanks as always!

  • Sometimes we are most effective when we are most human? No, ALL the time! Love this post.


  • For sure…100% agreement on that one. I dont mean to take anything away from the moment you described, but so much of what leadership is about is in fact about feeling what people need and guiding them “there”.`

    In fact, leadership can be summarized as the right action at the right time. And Joe’s was right on point.

  • A pleasure, Ken.

  • Thanks, Karen.

  • It’s easy to get lost. I see it slipping away all the time.

  • An interesting perspective, Jim. I do believe your right that storytelling is the heart of the social web!

  • I’m glad you found it too, Mimi. Who knows what will happen next? : )

  • I think we’re in a leadership renaissance in some respects. I’m kind of a student of leadership and if you look at some of the early literature, it was really trying to codify it as a science. Play the percentages and all that. I do think there is more of a value placed on authenticity. It is being demanded by the next generation of workers. Thanks for the comment!

  • That is a HUGE compliment William. I respect your intellect so very much, so that really means a lot to me.

    I guess there is a backstory to this post. There always is, so thanks for asking.

    I recently heard a podcast describing the common behavior of people hiding behind the anonymity of computer screens., spreading snarkiness, hate, bullying. and worse.

    I guess I was longing for that place not that long ago when we worked in companies that actually made stuff. People worked in teams of real live people who depended on each other for something more than tweets and likes.

    For some reason this story has been sticking in my head for a week. I miss those days, I miss those people and I miss the compassionate leadership that is so lacking on the self-involved social web.

    When you think about real issues like the one in this story and then look at the stuff people obsess over today like SEO crap and klout scores it kind of makes me sick. There is a leadership crisis on the social web, which is probably a reflection of our world in general.

  • Thanks Randy!

  • Great comment Dino. Thanks for taking the time to pass this along.

  • Mark…you are that kind of leader for sharing this story; your vision here
    is really compelling. Could the lack have to do with age? Age doesn’t
    necessarily bring wisdom, but it does bring experience, and the social net
    is definitely younger in both outlook and fact. Perhaps we need a New Media
    Leadership Academy or something–not to codify, but to focus intention on

    There was a post a while back about how kids look at “leadership” as a
    negative, and that’s incredibly sad to me. The time always comes when
    leaders are needed, and if no one has any experience doing it…

    Roots. Even on the net, we need them. Thanks for planting seeds, Mark.

  • I once

  • I once read that prayer provides peace to the departed soul! Anyway it was a very nice gesture! How long back it happened?

  • This event occurred probably about 1997 or so. Nice job on your blog by the way. Any new posts in the works?

  • Pingback: A Singular Act of a Child | Anocial()

  • Yes, I would agree with that statement. Silence is so powerful, and in the aforementioned situation, absolutely appropriate.

  • This gives me goosebumps, Mark (and you were right – I loved it!). It’s not so much that silence is powerful as it is that, all of our lives, we’re taught that leadership is about strength and not showing weakness. But, through that, we forget to be human.

  • I think people can always appreciate honesty. I think a good leader also knows if he is the smartest person in the room then he has a problem.

  • This is excellent. I struggle mentally on some days with whether I am doing the right thing or not as a leader. It’s great to be reminded that the simple things count as well.

  • To turn such an inspiring story into a branding parable seems somehow wrong, but I can’t help thinking that it reflects how the truly great brands act rather than tell. It’s not about what you say, but what you do. Nice one, Mark.

  • I really like this post Mark. I completely agree that so many forget to be human as they struggle to be *something*. I get the most out of the social web for business when I can use it to help others.

  • I have actually thought about something like that. An Institute for Digital Citizenship.

  • It was certainly a striking moment for me. A real lesson. Thanks William!

  • Gini I am so glad you brought up that point. It was what I was trying to say … without saying it! Instead of explaining, and pontificating, sometimes silence says so much more. Thank you very much for taking the time from your busy day to comment!

  • One of my favorite quotes was from Andrew Carnegie who said the key to effective leadership is having the courage to surround yourself with people smarter than yourself. Still a relevant attitude! Thank you!

  • nice to hear from you! It’s been too long!

  • Fantastic point John! Thank you.

  • I think it takes courage to be human. On the the web, so many people make themselves out to be superheros. Our greatest point of differentiation is our individual humanity. Thank you so much for your observation, Barb!

  • Joseph Fiore

    Incredibly touching post Mark. Thank-you so much for sharing this story. It serves as an inspiring reminder of how important leadership can be when we are amongst family, friends and peers.

    Joseph Fiore | RepuMetrix

  • Reading this made me pause and search my soul in humble introspection. Thank You

  • Thanks Joseph! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • Wow, that’s quite a comment Dan. Thanks for sharing that!

  • I was first puzzled by your post and wondered where it was going. I now see the reason of the silence and perfect leadership moment.

    Then I wondered if a silence could have helped, either me or one of my previous boss. I can’t really find a moment where it was needed. Maybe I was lucky (as such an horrible accident is certainly very difficult to live) or maybe I am not able to look back clearly but I will definitely keep this in mind.

    And I think that I am not the only one when I see the number of comments you have, 38 at the time I am writing this.


  • I was first puzzled by your post and wondered where it was going. I now see the reason of the silence and perfect leadership moment.

    Then I wondered if a silence could have helped, either me or one of my previous boss. I can’t really find a moment where it was needed. Maybe I was lucky (as such an horrible accident is certainly very difficult to live) or maybe I am not able to look back clearly but I will definitely keep this in mind.

    And I think that I am not the only one when I see the number of comments you have, 38 at the time I am writing this.


  • I’m sorry if this was confusing to you. My main point was the power of being human, perhaps even vulnerable, as an effective aspect of leadership. I think this is especially relevant for the social web when so many are pretending and hiding their true selves. Hope that helps : )

    Thank you very much for commenting!

  • I would totally enroll in that.

  • Mark, I want to comment, badly. So much could be said, but I fear I’d only cheapen your message. Wonderful story and point. Thank you.

  • Very moving post, Mark. Phew. Joe is a courageous leader; he was able to express what everyone truly needed in that moment.

    I just attended the Wisdom 2.0 Summit last weekend – a conference about the fusion of spirituality/mindfulness and technology. Making ourselves take time to be still, to go within, to pray, to meditate, to just breathe is vital to our health and vitality as humans and as companies. Truly, it’s the human experiences and emotions that bond us and, when we can connect at a deeper heart and soul level, we find we are all far more alike than different. Peace starts inside. Everything grows in stillness.

  • Sounds awesome, Mark!! Count me in too!

  • All comments are welcomed here Jamey : ) Thanks.

  • Beautifully stated Mari. I’m so jealous you got to go to that conference. Sounds like a wonderful experience!

  • Mark, I experienced a similar story. I was auditing a manufacturing plant when and employee lost his arms in a press. The CFO walked in and told us he would be unavailable for the next couple days. There where an eery hush in the entire building and everyone was genuinely concerned for their co-worker, friend, and fellow human.

    I absolutely agree that we are most effective when we are human. I am a big believer in principal-centered leadership. Leaders never know what decisions they will face tomorrow. The only way to make the reight decisions is to be grounded on right principals.

  • Thanks Mark for the appreciation, although i am far away from any quality blogging. Yes, new post is coming soon on a new social media platform developed by my company:

  • This is a moving account of life lived in the “real world”. The old sayings that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” and “people will always remember how you make them feel” come to mind. It is much easier said than done. My hat is off to the Joes of this world.

  • Goelmonica76

    This one came at the time when I was actually dwelling upon, “Sometimes silence, and action speak louder than words”. Thank you Mark for sharing this wonderful message. For someone like me who did not grow up with digital, and
    virtual world, true leadership and relationships go beyond mere words, it is the sense of direction, support and presence that adds meaning.  I look forward to your posts every day. 

  • Beautifully said. Thank you.

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