For anyone trying to communicate purpose and intent or to inspire an organisation or group to act, it is as important to leave gaps in your message as it is to say what you want.

The horse whisperer of swimming is a guy called Stephen Shaw. He’s developed a method based on The Alexander Technique so that you can swim further and more elegantly with less effort. He spends a deal of time emphasising the distinction between effort and recovery – for him the most important bit of the breaststroke is the glide, when your body does ‘nothing’. When you are working within a medium – water, or your organisation – you either use its nature to help you or flail against it, releasing the potential of its inertia to thwart your efforts, dissipate your energy. How many KPIs are there for nothing?

But don’t just think about the cost of energy, what about the emotion that you know you’ll need to convey if you want to persuade someone of the righteousness of your cause? Well, few things cause the heart to race so much as a well turned musical phrase and in music rhythm is dictated by the gaps between the notes. Drumming is as much about not hitting as hitting.

There’s a feel to both of these efforts, the musical and the physical, that can’t be conveyed by the numbers. Anyone who has played the guitar will have come across Tablature notation, known as Tab.Tab is a simple, illustrative way to convey which notes to play and can be understood by anyone who can hold a guitar even if they can’t read music. But it can’t convey rhythm. You need to hear a piece to understand how it should sound even though you know all the right notes to play and the right order. Even if a player is schooled in formal musical notation and they’ve heard a piece before, how they play is everything. The incomparable Evelyn Glennie illustrates this in her TED talk on the skills of listening…next coffee break, click here.

Alexei Sayle wrote a great song about Dr Martens boots. His musical interests don’t stop there: he loves dance…but he hates ballroom, as he explains:

“The reason for this is simple: you get points for it. Ballroom dancing is an aesthetic pursuit, an art form, that has been turned into a competition the result of which is that everything is done to attract the attention of the judges.The competitors must try to fit within a set of rules and so a tawdry, flashy, kitsch aesthetic takes over. Imagine if actors got points for doing Shakespeare what kind of overblown, hammy performances you would get.”

He goes on slightly to misquote documentary film maker Albert Maysles whose actual words might serve as an angel on the shoulder of all leaders:

“Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.”

You can see how it happens, something is so important to a leader that they try and ‘guarantee’ it happens by insisting on more detail, increased oversight, less wiggle room in carrying it out. What gets measured gets done! But as the song goes:

“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results.”

But how can a manager or leader express themselves clearly and engagingly and also leave ‘gaps’?

mind the gap

The same day Sayle’s article was published, the panel on the Radio 4 programme Start the Week included Ruth Padel, a poet and also the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. She contended that it was poetry’s ability to mean several different things in different ways that made it resilient. That if a poem has complexity and ambiguity which don’t yield meaning straight away then it can stand the test of time. Most astute leaders understand that all of us are smarter than the smartest one of us. By leaving gaps for other people to find their own meaning an officially stated purpose can evolve to become everyone’s purpose; stronger, better, more resilient. As Padel also pointed out, Darwin said that:

“In the long history of animal and human kind it is those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively that have prevailed.”

Next time you have an important project, try an experiment. Get a group together and tell them what you want to achieve, then ask them to discuss how it should be done.

Get another group together and tell them what you want to achieve and ask them why they think it should be done (however obvious that seems), wait until they are fully talked out then ask them ‘how’. What do you notice about the two conversations?