Gain Power and Presence by Pausing

I am stealing a page from Axios newsletter. They publish their word count and expected reading time.  I may, as I have today, added footnotes, a more extensive commentary, and external links should you wish to explore more.

407 words.  3 minutes.

Dr. Ronald Heifetz of the Kennedy School of Government would utterly unnerve students. He inspired me and challenged what I thought I knew about leading.  Ronnie studied cello and public policy. And Dr. Heifetz was a psychiatrist. Instead of one client, he faced 120 of us in a semi-circular cascade of rows, but he used the same technique in class as in clinic.


Can you see the pause?





Look around the room.

Our silence practically SCREAMED: “For God’s sakes, man, TEACH.”

The first time he did it, I thought, “geez, what a weird style. He’s a prof. Does he not know what to do up there?” No, he knew.

It might have been 3 seconds. But the pressure was there.  The pressure is here….right now. Is your mind not saying, as if to me: “Get to the point, man.”  You may not follow me here, but I challenge you to stop reading this for 3 seconds after this exclamation point:  !

Be still.

Did you keep your mind somewhat still…or not?   Imagine:  Heifetz might go for 10 seconds, maybe 15. I never actually counted. It was 15 seconds of “dead air!*”  15 seconds, maybe, ¼ of 1 minute.  Hardly a massive amount of time, right?! I’m sure he felt the “pressure” in the field we were creating around him.**

He was using what teacher Tara Brach refers to in meditation as the SACRED pause.***

Stealing from UPS, I’d ask, “what could the sacred pause do for you” and those you lead and with whom you are engaged. Here’s what the discipline of creating a sacred pause would have done for me:

  • I would have avoided tens of arguments with my kids.
  • I would not have sued an “idiotic” merchant, because I would have seen that I was equally if not more idiotic. That 15 seconds of not pausing, cost me hours and hours of time and disquieted my mind with inner arguments and frustration.
  • I would have heard the actual questions student were asking, rather than what I decided in my haste was their point.
  • I would not have interrupted anyone, except in the perhaps 10 actual emergencies I’ve faced in my six decades.
  • And I would have “lead by two” with my bride and my writing and business colleagues when often I turned them into adversaries.

Leaders mind the silence.  I’m done talking. I’d be happy to sit still and read your thoughts about leadership and the sacred pause, as you

Lead with your best self.

Further Thoughts and Footnotes

*When I hosted a radio show, I learned that dead air was the kiss of death.  If you went silent because of the technology or a brain freeze, people would immediately turn the channel and leave.  Of course, you listen to a radio to hear something.  But how long would you wait?  Nobody wants uncomfortable silence.  But sometimes, as Heifetz knew, you have to people catch up. Otherwise, they can fall into a kind of trance where they are not really comprehending, let alone discerning and discovering and debating with you.

** Now, as I teach, and when I pause, I hear the screams:  “What? Why are you stopping? What’s the next point? Talk!”  In fact, I hear them in my head, as if I am hearing them out loud, and thus the fact is it’s incredibly difficult for me to stop.  People seem to want leaders to GO and not stop! But sometimes, it behooves us to be still.

*** Here is a link to a great 52-minute talk on the “sacred pause,” which includes meditation practice within it.  For a quick taste, here’s a link to a powerful story and 5-minute introduction.


A little more on Heifetz and the pause.

I have merged – you might say smashed together – two or three ideas in this short space, where my point was to encourage leaders to slow their roll.  Here is some of the deep wisdom that Heifetz shares, or my best simplification and interpretation of it:

  1. The relationship between the authority and those who “follow” is complicated and highly interactive.  I put quotes around “follow,” because people follow …until they don’t. And people follow, about as much as they wish or need to.  As any parent, or any manager of a difficult employee knows, followers can not only withhold their respect but they have many tools to make the authority’s life quite miserable. I don’t doubt, for example, that Trump is highly frustrated with elements of the government that at a minimum are dragging their feet on some of his policies. In turn, Trump is stonewalling what would appear to be legitimate authority of the congress to obtain information. Pelosi, et al., are frustrated.  Command is vastly more limited than it appears.
  2. Therefore, authorities have to pay close attention expectations. In my examples above, Heifetz and I – and anyone who has taught from 4th grade to PhD’s – knows the pressure that impinges on you, for example, to “move things along,” to “have the answers,” and to “act like every teacher before you” has acted. It is not just students who are forced to conform. Teachers are, too. It takes a lot of inner strength and you can spend a lot of social capital when you buck the expectations people have of you as the authority.
  3. Heifetz’ brilliant work in Leadership Without Easy Answers and Leadership on the Line (co-written by Marty Linsky) reveals how many of the most important issues we face cannot be solved by an omniscient and omnipotent authority, first, because no one has those two characteristics, but even if they did, change requires stakeholders to think, to discuss tough tradeoffs, to adapt to new challenges, to confront loss and change.  Therefore,
  4. Sometimes a leader’s job (whether they are in a position of authority or leading from “below”) is NOT to talk but to listen, not to get people to hear the leader but to hear each other, not to reveal the facts but to draw out feelings, opinions, and data the authority themself may not be able to access.  So they need to stop!  The sacred pause.  Would that George W. Bush had exercised a longer pause before leading us into war in the Middle East. Obama was pilloried for drawing a “red line” in Syria, when later he could not back up that threat. Trump’s fast talk about North Korea, Iran, China and the wall have all taken him into conflict with the limits of his authority – both within the country and its courts and congress, as well as outside with other nations.  Meanwhile, no one seems to be doing the hard work, for example, of figuring out on immigration just how we will balance human compassion and the ideal of a great open democracy with basic aspects of the rule of law in a global society beset by violence and poverty.
  5. Most of us don’t face these grand issues, but the same dynamic of what Heifetz would call “adaptive” challenges face us – as we deal with so-called rebellious children, aging parents, difficult managers, etc.  The sacred pause is one we can employ as citizens, parents, and as people in search of truth and meaning.


  • For most of us this acronym should be posted somewhere handy


    And further
    S for STILL!

  • I have found in my unscientific mind that the sacred pause allows me to tap into the 89-90% of my brain capacity not normally or readily available.

  • Thanks Dan. Your article was “Perfect timing”! I just spent time this weekend with a friend where I found myself interrupting her her stories with my endings. I have been feeling guilty all morning trying to decide what to do next. Now I know, I just need to “pause” and listen in order to “lead with my best self”. Thank you for this gentle reminder. Have a wonderful day.

  • Thoughtful, personally useful article. Do you remember, I do, being reminded to count to 10 before responding to a negative remark?

  • Dan, so many work environments are frenetic, so many people in them are feeling stressed out, and I’m convinced that these factors do not foster success, but rather inhibit it. Leaders often need to have a calming influence, which helps others keep focused on the goal and their role in achieving it with their colleagues.

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