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The Power of Communicating Without Words

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“Action expresses priorities” – Mahatma Gandhi

Humans have the gift of language. But words are inefficient and often used to shield our real intentions. As social animals, we communicate more powerfully with our actions, although we are often not aware of this. When our words and deeds come apart, so does our integrity.

There are times when leaders are tested by devastating upheavals – when our very way of life is on the line. The current pandemic is a crisis of this kind. The prospects of a life-threatening illness combined with crippling economic hardship are our daily companions. We are also coping with the psychological consequences of prolonged social isolation, and more recently, with protests in the streets. At this crucial moment, everyone will be watching what their leaders do.

A few years ago, I visited Robben Island off the coast of South Africa where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned prior to his ultimate release and election as South Africa’s first black president. During his incarceration, he and his fellow prisoners were subjected to daily cruelty and humiliation, but Mandela conducted himself with courage, forbearance and dignity. His moral fortitude was a beacon not only to his fellow prisoners but also to his jailors.

Mandela was inspired by his favorite poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. The final verse reads:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

These reflections were churning in my mind while touring the prison. Our guide was a modest, matter of fact man, who had himself been a prisoner at the same time as Mandela.  We peppered him with questions, and he gave straightforward, unadorned answers.

“How long were you a prisoner here?” “Thirteen years.”

“Did you suffer a lot?”  “It was very unpleasant.”

“Are you angry?” “There is no point in that. I try to put it behind me.”

We were not going to get any histrionics from this man. Finally, I walked out front beside him as he led the group and struck up a more personal conversation. “I am interested in the idea of forgiveness,” I told him. “Usually we think of forgiveness as a response to a single injustice. But you were subjected to cruelty every day for 13 years. How on earth did you manage forgiveness in the face of that repeated onslaught?” He stopped, looked at me steadily, and said simply, “Mandela was here.” What was life-changing to this man was not what Mandela said. It was what he did.

Mandela, of course, was an icon. But the power of example is as true in our personal leadership roles as it is for our national leaders.

My father was a steady, deliberate man with a sturdy moral foundation. He was a man of few words and he lived by his values without fanfare or self-righteous declarations.  

In a prior article I wrote about my father’s patriotic act during World War Two. There was no conscription in my native South Africa, yet he decided to volunteer for the Allies and leave his young family to serve a cause he believed in. I vividly remember, as a young boy, watching the train pull out of the station as he started off on his long journey to Europe. Even then, I was aware that he was doing this for the simple reason that he believed it was right.

One great lesson endures for me. Watching my father’s quiet example taught me the crucial difference between purely physical courage and moral courage. The former can be done as an adventure, such as sky diving. The latter involves acting resolutely on principle and accepting the risks involved.

The power of communicating without words played out in an interesting way during my time as a CEO. I had occasion to appoint a new director of financial planning – an important role requiring a high level of critical thinking and analytical rigor. The HR department put forward two outstanding candidates, both of them women. Let’s call them Mary and Isabelle. During the first interview, both candidates showed they had superb professional qualifications and great experience. I could flip a coin and not go wrong. Afterwards, my assistant, Joanne, asked me, “What did you decide?” “I just don’t know,” I said. “Both would be excellent in the job. I need more information. Please arrange a second interview.”

In the second interview, I asked the candidates a different question: “Why do you want this job?” Mary folded her arms, sat back in her chair, and eloquently expressed her wish to make a meaningful contribution to the department’s priorities. When I posed the same question to Isabelle, she leaned forward eagerly, while voicing sentiments similar to Mary’s. But by sitting forward her whole body communicated enthusiasm and commitment. This gesture was totally in tune with what she was saying. That clinched it for me.

After the meetings, Joanne asked again, “Which one did you choose?” “It’s Isabelle,” I said. Joanne asked why. “Because she sat forward,” I replied. For a minute, Joanne looked perplexed. Then she smiled as she understood the significance of Isabelle’s body language.

As a CEO, I learned that there are other deliberate gestures that speak more loudly than words. One is deciding what goes to the top of the agenda in progress review meetings. We emphasize that there is nothing more important than our company’s priorities. But a speech is not enough. My golden rule was always to place the review of these priorities as item one on the agenda. This fortifies the message, “There is nothing more important than these.”  Items at the bottom of an agenda convey a silent message downgrading their importance, “We will get to these if we have time.” Another is the critical communication role of an organization’s measurement and reward system. There is a simple formula that spurs action without words: what gets measured gets done; what gets rewarded gets done repatedly.

A leader’s reactions speak volumes when confronted with bad news. Organizations can learn and improve only if they address reality and don’t bury their mistakes. It is vital that the unvarnished truth travels swiftly to decision-makers. Of course, it is natural to feel disappointment when bad news is conveyed to us. But we underestimate the impact of our non-verbal cues. Gaping with astonishment, rolling our eyes, scowling – these all project disapproval, even if we don’t say a word. The result is that the messenger feels personally indicted and discouraged from delivering bad news again. This habit of “shooting the messenger” through our gestures can lead to a breakdown in organizational learning.

At a recent workshop with a global company, I noticed how the CEO practiced the habit of asking probing, non-threatening questions that yielded more insightful discussions. His energetic curiosity was remarkable. In subsequent workshops, the participants followed the CEO’s example of pursuing questions to enrich their dialogue, even though the CEO was not present. The art of learning through questioning had become embedded in the culture of the firm. There were no instructions from the CEO to do this. An inspiring example motivates us to embrace change in ways that words alone cannot accomplish.

Navigating the current crisis requires leaders at every level to take tough, well-informed decisions that call on people to endure harsh sacrifices in the common interest. To succeed, leaders must serve as an unwavering role model for the behaviors they are advocating. Only then will they earn the credibility to deliver a message that will calm, fortify and unify their followers.

In the final analysis, what all this boils down to is authenticity – a seamless connection between our expressed values and our actions. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

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