The Rigor of Voice
“I don’t get it,” she says as we talk about thought leadership.

It’s a topic that pops up often in our work. Leaders with experience find themselves on a TED stage somewhere. These talks bounce around from social feeds to email threads to training sessions. Books to sell. Some of it is terrific. Most not so much.

She’s an experienced Google Product Manager who later becomes the founder of a growing SaaS company with hundreds of employees. She’s been there, done that. “Get what?” I ask. She immediately jumps into her inquisitive mode about people who feel they have something to say. People who have a sense of self-importance, the eagerness to talk, to explain, to share their ideas, their vision, their perspective. She’s not being judgmental. She’s truly confused.

“We call this voice,” I say half laughing.

Or better, finding your voice. We encourage people to speak their truth. To organize their thoughts into consumable formats. “Stories work,” I add. Color. Characters. Moral dilemmas. Surprise and reversals. Resolved into a nice packaged truth. All good stuff. But here with this amazing Stanford grad and entrepreneur, she stops me in my tracks. She doesn’t get it.

We live in interesting times. My oldest brother and I have been getting into some heated arguments of late mirroring the larger social conversation. “There are some things we shouldn’t let be said,” he screams as we discuss the politics of the day. He supports the idea of voice but believes some truths override other people’s points of view and questions. The far-right calls it “cancel culture.” My brother calls it informed righteousness.

Then in the background, I’m reading and studying Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and of course Seneca.

The responsibility of voice.

Being measured with your words. Thoughtful with your judgments. Accountable for making the world a better place. Being a good person.

I think of Francis Frei and her simple three-step model for building trust. Be authentic with no self-serving agenda. Understanding empathy requires holding yourself and others to standards. And real truth requires a commitment to the rigor of logic. Stoicism indeed.

And then Jeff Bezos’ six-page memo. The Amazon internal leadership and management requirement for raising issues or reporting out on topics. Six pages of detail. Six pages of study. Six pages of rigor. Jeff has been quoted as saying it should take two weeks to write and re-write one of these six-page arguments. Two weeks?! And this from a man known for efficiency and operational excellence.

Listening is more important than talking.

When you’re young, someone in your family, mom, dad, an uncle, or aunt, brings up the obvious of having two ears and one mouth. Listening is more important than talking is the lesson. Got it. Or so you think. Yet we spend the bulk of our lives re-learning this simple lesson. The lucky few finally getting it in their later years.

So what is voice? Is it just talking, having a point of view, and feeling safe to express it? Or is it a responsibility? A discipline that requires hard work, thoughtfulness, and a focus on the self-critical analysis of why you, why now, and have you done your homework?

As I regain my footing here with this smart, experienced young woman, it occurs to me. The people we most need to hear from usually ask the same questions she’s asking now. They are thoughtful. Self-critical to a fault. They self-sensor. It goes to what I often say about the skills we teach. The dumb people get them first. Smart people take longer.

The simple truth of voice is that the barrier to entry is pretty low.

So the lazy jump in first. Fast and furious. Social media is the proof.

So where am I going with this? Simply put, we need more smart, diverse, experienced voices. You. I know you think you have nothing to say. Nothing to add. It’s all noise you say. But I challenge you to rethink that. Your life experience. Your perspective. It’s important. Particularly now. But I add one caveat from my Stoicism teachers. Do the hard work. Think before you speak. Lean on those two ears to seek understanding. And as Marcus Aurelius would say, “be a good person.”

And that’s exactly what I say at this moment. She still struggles with her voice. But she’ll find it. She has to. Because we need it. Particularly now.

Want to read more from Renn? Check out his blog on how to be accountable.

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