Leadership 101: Be Quiet

Forbes Magazine/November 9, 2006
By Elisabeth Eaves

Is silence an effective management tool? A new study of a cult leader says yes.

Paul Joosse, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta, has just published "Silence, Charisma and Power: The Case of John de Ruiter" in the Journal of Contemporary Religion. He concludes that silence is key to the sway de Ruiter--a former Lutheran minister--holds over his thousands of devotees.

Many of de Ruiter's followers attribute a "superhuman status" to him, according to Joosse. He packs halls as far afield as Germany and Australia and has lured hundreds of acolytes from around the world to settle near his home, where they attend meetings four times a week, pay dues and volunteer at his Edmonton College of Integrated Philosophy.

So how does de Ruiter make silence work for him, and more importantly, should you try it in the boardroom--or the bedroom?

De Ruiter's meetings "are essentially three-hour-long question-and-answer periods, punctuated by long periods of silence and gazing between de Ruiter and his followers," Joosse writes. Often, de Ruiter answers only by gazing, and on occasion doesn't speak for an entire session.

Silence can inspire devotion in three ways, according to Joosse. First, it elicits projection, the psychological phenomenon in which we attribute certain thoughts or feelings to another. This "fosters the belief within devotees that de Ruiter has the ability to speak to the specific personal needs of people whom he has never met." Listeners, in other words, often interpret silence as understanding.

Second, silence is an effective punishment--thus the "silent treatment." If inflicted in front of a group, it also serves as a display of power.

For example, in 1999, de Ruiter's ex-wife confronted him in front of an audience of worshipers over his adulterous relationships with two female disciples. Faced with the sort of mortal public embarrassment that has brought down lesser holy men, he responded with a silence that both demonstrated his power and caused some followers to believe he was turning the other cheek. His flock remained intact. De Ruiter is not alone in using silence as a punishment--it's also practiced by the Amish, the Igbo of Nigeria and angry spouses everywhere.

Third, de Ruiter uses silence "to foster the belief that he has an extraordinary ability to form intimate connections with complete strangers simply by gazing at them." De Ruiter makes silent eye contact with every single person at a meeting, often for minutes at a time. If you've attended many political rallies, you may have noticed a diluted version of the same tactic: The savvy candidate uses individual eye contact to establish a connection.

Combined with gazing deeply into another's eyes, silence can create the sort of intimacy usually exclusive to lovers, Joosse writes. "Attendees confuse the act that usually accompanies intimacy with actual intimacy, feeling connected to de Ruiter in a deeply loving way."

Before you incorporate silence into your management arsenal, a few caveats are in order. "The attributions and projections of the audience may or may not be favorable towards the leader," Joosse notes. Listeners may read silence as god-like understanding ... or as cluelessness. Even de Ruiter's silences give some the impression that his meetings are "doctrinally vacuous." And silence is no way to win friends and influence people at a cocktail party: "Silence is inappropriate on a first date or at a gathering of previously unacquainted people," Joosse writes. New acquaintances don't yet share the intimacy that would warrant shared silence, so that dead air isn't meaningful--just every bit as awkward as it feels.

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