Leading With Your Mouth Shut


Leadership is a vocal profession.

Leaders are quarterbacks rallying teams, teachers imparting wisdom, coaches directing players, soldiers leading the charge, pastors shepherding people, CEOs casting vision. Yes, there is a public side of leadership--up front and vocal. There is also a quiet side to leadership. Leader's often lead with their mouths shut.

The President Who Led With His Mouth Shut

Woodrow Wilson was President of Princeton College, Governor of New Jersey, and a two-term President of the United States. He was an academic, a writer, and an orator. Communication was the name of his game. One biographer labels him as the "most articulate presidential politician since Thomas Jefferson."[1] Wilson was unabashedly vocal, but his speech was tempered by his silence. Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper, Jr. paints a picture of a man who often led with his mouth shut.

As President of Princeton, Wilson lost a battle with his Trustees over the location of the Graduate College. In his bitterness, Wilson wrote:

I admit, to you, that I am very low in my mind, filled with scorn and disappointment, and fighting to hold my tongue from words that might make all breaches irreparable.[2]

Wilson traveled to Bermuda after being elected President of the United States. He wanted time to grapple with cabinet appointments and policy. His biographer noted:

Wilson kept his own counsel while he was in Bermuda, but he was clearly pondering what he would do in the White House.[3]

Shortly after the death of wife, Wilson lost his usual self-control in a discussion with Boston Editor William Monroe Trotter over racial issues. Commenting on that incident to Josephus Daniels, his Secretary of the Navy, Wilson said:

Daniels, never raise an incident into an issue. . . . I was damn fool enough to lose my temper and to point them to the door. What I ought to have done would have been to have listened, restrained my resentment, and, when they had finished, to have said to them that, of course their petition would receive consideration….But I lost my temper and played the fool.”[4]

When William Jennings Bryan resigned as his Secretary of State, “Wilson handled Bryan’s departure with dignity. He wrote a warmly worded letter . . . .

Behind his mask of cordiality, however, Wilson was apprehensive; he knew Bryan’s departure brought both danger and opportunity.”[5]

Leaders speak, but leaders also bite their tongues, keep their own counsel, ponder their paths, and restrain their words. At times leaders wear a mask that hides a world of conflicts. In short, leaders must often lead with their mouths shut.

What God Says About "Zipping It"

The book of Proverbs provides important reminders about the danger of opening ones mouth only to insert ones foot. God reminds us to "Zip it!"

  • When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. Proverbs 10:19 ESV
  • Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. Proverbs 13:3 ESV
  • Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. Proverbs 17:28 ESv
  • Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble. Proverbs 21:23 ESV

Restraining the lips is essential. Nehemiah shows us how to do it in a leadership context.

Seven Times That Call For Silence

Nehemiah's resume is impressive. He was aid to the most dominant figure in the world. He was also governor and chief architect of a massive rebuilding project in Palestine. He entered a disaster zone, gathered a rag-tag group of people, and led an impressive turnaround in just 52 days.

Nehemiah is an example of bold leadership. Studying his life we also see seven times when leaders lead with their mouths shut:

1. When pausing to pray for God's favor.

Nehemiah was living in Persia when he received the assessment of the disastrous conditions of his homeland. Interestingly, he did not immediately call a strategy session, rally his troops, mount his horse and charge off into the fray. He writes, "As soon as I heard these words I lay down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, 'O LORD ... let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night." (Nehemiah 1:4-6). Leading with your mouth shut is pausing to pray before plowing ahead.

2. When waiting on God's timing.

Leaders have a bias for action. Sitting still is not in our DNA. Nehemiah was staring at broken walls, broken dreams, broken hearts, and a broken city. He wanted to GO, but he had to WAIT---for four long months! (Nehemiah 1:1; 2:1) Timing is everything. Leading with your mouth shut is patiently waiting for the correct time to challenge the status quo and initiate action.  J.I. Packer notes,

Wait on the Lord” is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.[6]

3. When defining reality.

Max De Pree says, "The first job of a leader is to define reality."[7] Nehemiah does this all the time.

  • Taking inventory of resources and planning strategy.

"The king said to me, 'What are you requesting?' ...  And I said to the king, 'If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber...'" (Nehemiah 2:7-8). Nehemiah was able to give a specific answers to the king's question because he was not flying by the seat of his pants. He took inventory of his strengths and weaknesses, his opportunities and threats. Then he planned his strategy in light of it. 

  • Assessing the situation and pondering options.

Leaders don't release every detail and share every thought. They exercise the discipline to keep sensitive matters to themselves until the time is right. Listen to Nehemiah recount his arrival, "Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. . . . And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, and I had not yet told [them]" (Nehemiah 2:12, 16). Nehemiah was assessing the situation and pondering options. This was the time to think, not talk. 

  • Monitoring the health of the workers and the work.

Peruse the pages of his story (see Nehemiah 4:14 for example) and you will find Nehemiah constantly assessing both the status of the task at hand and the health and safety of the people who were working to accomplish that task. Leading with your mouth shut is observing the status of the work and the workers to ensure that the needs of both are met.

4. When listening to your people.

"As soon as I heard these words"... "I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words" (Nehemiah 1:4; 5:6). Good leaders know facts are your friends. They also know that gathering facts means taking time to block out distractions and to listen. The quiet work of leadership is attentively listening to your people.

5. When refusing to be sidetracked by critics.

Nehemiah had no shortage of critics. Rather than engage in a shouting match he gave the matter to God in prayer and then put his head, his heart, and his hands fulling into the task before him. See Nehemiah 4:1-6.

6. When biting your tongue.

Friends and foes alike will often stir up feelings of frustration. Nehemiah experienced this when he became aware of injustice among his people. Rather than give full vent to his anger, he bit his tongue: "I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials." (Nehemiah 5:6-7 ESV)  Leaders must often silence their frustrations, "take counsel with themselves," and plan appropriate action. This is leading with your mouth shut.

7. When meeting quietLy with God.

When Nehemiah arrived from Persia to commence his work, he said, "And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem." (Nehemiah 2:12) Interesting! How did Nehemiah discern God's call in the first place? He was listening. Leading with your mouth shut is taking regular time to be still before God, to read His Word, and to listen for the "whispers" of his Spirit.

Are You Leading With Your Mouth Shut?

Nehemiah was very much the vocal leader. He challenged the status quo, he cast a compelling vision, he rallied his team, and he battled his enemies, but it was his quiet work that paved the way for his public success.

Are you leaving enough time for the quiet work of leadership? Are you leading with your mouth shut? Which of the 7 aspects of the Leader's Quiet Work is the most challenging for you?


[1] John Milton Cooper, Jr. Woodrow Wilson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2009. Page 159.

[2] Cooper, page 111.

[3] Cooper, page 183.

[4] Cooper, page 271.

[5] Cooper, page 294.

[6] J.I. Packer, Knowing God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1973. Page 217.

[7] Max De Pree, Leadership Is An Art..