Quiet: How a Ritual of Silence Helps Me Lead

In business, a fast-paced, cut-to-the-chase, get-it-done approach is a natural state of being. Contemplation and reflection in the performance-driven culture of financial services could seem implausible for the leader of a company in pursuit of continuous improvement.

So it might come as a surprise for some to hear a CEO advocate a quiet-time ritual. But I do have one, and it keeps me focused and productive. I devote a half hour or so to silence early every morning for uninterrupted thought, focus and study. I don't take phone calls or attend meetings before that time no matter how hectic or pressing the day's agenda. No emails, either. Instead, I take a step back to reflect and use this moment to slow down and focus on how I'm feeling and how that may influence my decision-making. It's also when I consider what's working in the organization and what needs to change. Once I get into the right mindset, I can get to work. This may sound a little indulgently introspective, but I'm convinced this silent time makes me a more grounded and effective executive, particularly as I have really honed this skill over my years in business.

Inner Mapping Comes Naturally

Having spent a lot of time in church as the son of a preacher, being reflective has always been a personal practice. In my younger days looking to get on an executive track, this tendency toward inner mapping would show up as I contemplated whether I had a successful day or one that didn't do much to advance my goals. I'd lie in bed at night and review events, thinking: "I was overbearing in this meeting or missed the mark in that meeting. I should have done this thing differently." I'd then rewrite the work day in my head the way I wished it had turned out. Or maybe I'd feel I had a great day on the job, without recognizing that the reason I was happy was because (take your pick): it was a beautiful spring day; something uplifting happened at home; or the Red Sox were enjoying a winning streak.

Eventually, I learned to use this reflective time to make conscious connections between my emotional mood and how I interpreted the world. It could be something as simple as knowing that being tired makes me grouchy and unfocused. Some years back a management coach helped me understand the importance of recognizing my mood or having attitude awareness up front, before deciding and acting. I learned that if you consciously reflect on what you're feeling and think about the tools you have to manage that you can control your interpretation of issues much better.

I've stuck with this practice and I find it helps me be a better leader. On a good day, I might be overly optimistic and have to make sure my excitement doesn't cloud my critical eye. I have to use my morning quiet time to discern that my inner state--my natural state of joy, in this case--needs to be kept in check and that I have to pull that back a little bit. On the other hand, if I'm having a bad day, I have to ensure my exhaustion doesn't cause me to be distracted, disengaged or unnecessarily averse to taking a well-reasoned risk.

This attitude awareness can play out in ways big and small. We can probably all relate to those days when we are particularly overbooked, moving from meeting to meeting or call to call. When that happens, we look forward to the smallest break in the day to catch our breath. So, what happens when instead of having that 15 minutes of downtime to tend to your own needs, something comes up and you have to suddenly switch gears and be a good listener, give some coaching or make a difficult business decision? What I have learned is the importance of taking a beat, assessing my own feelings, and deliberately setting those aside so I can be fully present and my best self for my team and our company. I don't think I would ever be as effective at making those shifts on the fly if I didn't begin every day with a conscious effort to remind myself of what I am here to accomplish.

Scheduling regular uninterrupted time helps me manage each day better: I'm able to finesse interruptions, figure out how to do more than just get things done, and show up as a leader. For me, slowing down every morning enables me to move the organization forward faster. And the value of this is not unique to executives only. Everyone in the workplace can benefit from pressing pause on our hectic lives, tuning out all of the static around us and spending some quiet time putting things in perspective. It's in this quiet time that our priorities are most clear and our inner voice guides us to find and demonstrate truly authentic leadership.