An Afternoon with Robert Greenleaf

Ann McGee-Cooperby Ann McGee-Cooper, Ed.D., CEO
Ann McGee-Cooper & Associates
Thursday, April 11, 2013


Don't SpeakIn the late 70s, thanks to my friends at TDIndustries and AT&T, I had the unique opportunity to spend most of a day with Bob Greenleaf. It was early in my work teaching servant leadership, and I was eager to make use of every precious minute “at the foot of the master.”  I had a long list of questions filling five or six pages.  Once we finished breakfast with his lovely wife, Esther, I could hardly wait to seek answers, as fast as I could listen and write them down and as many as possible.  Think of a rapid-fire machine gun and you will have the pace – very little listening and a great deal of pressing forward with the next question.

Bob was patient and gracious for a good while. And then I remember him quietly standing up, offering his hand, and walking me out into the sunlight to sit quietly on a wooden bench in the garden.  There we sat in silence for what seemed like a very long time.  In truth, it may have been only five minutes but inside of me the clock was ticking and I could hardly restrain my eagerness to “get on with the questions.”  There was so much I was hoping he could explain to me.

Finally he spoke.  These aren’t his exact words, of course, but my best memory of his message went something like this:  “Ann, I’ve been a practicing Quaker for some time and some of the gifts that have come to me include these two pieces of wisdom.  The first is, don’t speak unless you can improve upon the silence.”

I was stunned!  What could this mean?  I had always thought of silence as  emptiness, an opportunity to speak, a space begging for a voice.  Never had I thought of silence as a time to reflect, go deeper, and listen for a depth of wisdom beyond the surface chatter.

And then he continued.  “The second part of this Quaker wisdom is when Spirit moves within you, it is your responsibility to give it voice.  When someone needs to find the courage to challenge assumptions, prejudices, biases, etc., one must dare to speak for those not present, for those who get lost in the shuffle or may not be represented.”

Now, three decades later I am still living into this new way of being present. Bob gave silence a new reverence, filled with endless possibilities.  Yet still I am challenged to not interrupt; my natural instinct is to jump in with my opinion and thoughts.  When I do slow down and make room for more and more silence, I discover the gift of a truth far more profound than any my quick response may give voice to.  And more and more often I remember during challenging moments when I think someone needs to speak up, that Greenleaf is nudging me to bring voice to something that may open a new paradigm.  It comes not from within me but through me.

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  • Robert Anderson-Ludrick

    Loved your statement. Thank you for sharing it with us. I sometimes have worried that my calm, somewhat non-assertive ways were not a good match for leadership. I have a more Zen like approach to things as I’ve become older. I shall contemplate these words and keep them in mind as my life journey unfolds. Again thank you.
    Robert, Dir. Continuous Improvement, Staples Print Solutions