A few years ago, my son and daughter got into a typical sibling brouhaha. I was in an adjacent room and could hear the entire exchange. It was a low-level issue, to me, and I chose to let them work it out. About 30 minutes later, my son walked into the room I was in and appeared shocked to see me. “What?!” he yelled. “You were here the whole time? Why didn’t you say something? You always take her side!” Right or wrong, he felt terribly betrayed by me. I have told this simple story many times at leadership conferences on just how powerful an action of ‘no action’ can be to followers.
We often think of great leaders by the actions they take or attributes they have. There is no shortage of good leadership attributes. They might be great listeners, great visionaries, great risk-takers, great orators and the like. These kinds of attributes define these leaders. What also defines leaders, sometimes even more powerfully, is the actions they do not take. There is no mal-intent or lack of empathy or anything nafarious in most of these inactions, just as there was none when I chose not to intervene in my kids’ squabble. But to my son, I demonstrated very poor leadership as a parent. I am conceding that he was right. I am not convinced, however, that I should have walked into their room and mediated the issue while it was happening. Irrespective of who was right in the exchange, they both needed my love afterwards. That was where I went wrong. I failed to recognize the emotional wounds that any type of battle (personal or workplace) can cause and as a leader, I need to help heal those wounds. Leaders simply need to recognize that they are now being judged equally by what they do not say/do.
This week think of the many decisions you have to make from the routine to the more complex. As you make the decision, also think of the other side of your decision. Could your decision be viewed as a non-action? Who would view it as a non-action? Is there any subsequent action you can take to the action of non-action that can heal a wounded constituent? These actions for non-actions often become the “little stories” that people will share at your retirement party!