All of my children at around the age of a-year-and-a-half became very annoying. They would abruptly and continuously yell unintelligible sounds. They would scream, yell, click their tongues, and make a cacophony of (did I already say annoying?) sounds. It hurt my ears, kept me awake when I wanted to be sleeping, and made social engagements very awkward. As my wife and I endured this time we would come across people who would say, “awww how cute; they are finding their voice” and “Are they twins?”
All people go through this necessary childhood developmental process and some even go on to be great orators, singers, musicians, preachers, etc. They use their developed voice for the good of mankind. They have honed the skill of their voice to harness the admiration and confidence of others. They draw attention to causes, things that need attention, or other noble purposes. That which was once annoying because it was underdeveloped has now become focused and highly useful.
But what of the adult who has not found their voice? What about those who squeak, stumble, and lack process of thought? Do we want to follow them? Do we want to follow their cause, or get-in-line to sign up to assist their efforts? No. Like a screaming child they give us a headache and when mom’s not looking we slip out of the room.
As a leader, here are a few things to think about in relation to your ideas and how you voice those ideas.
Annoying is not Cute.
Yes, I have been “that parent” on the airplane whose children were screaming. And no, I did not check Pinterest to get cute ideas of gifts to give those sitting around us. We were broke and exhausted and had no time or money to put together a hundred bags of candy or whatever you would put in a bag that says, “I’m sorry for making your life miserable on this flight.” They just had to suck it up, and take the hit. They drew us, and our screaming children, as their travel companions. No matter what we did, and how we had prepared for the flight the children decided to scream and cry. Joy. Those people who smiled and said, “oh, how cute” and “are they twins?,” those same people would not look at us as we got off the plane.
Annoying is not cute.
The same is true for those leaders who have not continued to develop their voice. Like screaming kids on an airplane, people get trapped into situations where they have to listen to them, praying that it will end (soon). People try to end the pain by helping the parents. They hand them crackers across the aisle, or offer up some business item to be used as a toy. Those who endure an underdeveloped leader try to help them. Do you really want to follow a leader for whom you feel sympathy? Leaders are to inspire, encourage, and (to say the obvious) lead.
In many ways we are all traveling on a journey together. Sometimes it’s your turn to lead, and sometimes it’s your turn to follow. So if you are on deck to lead, and people are listening to what you say, make sure it is pleasant to the ears. For those leaders who shrill and crack through their ideas, it is painful for those listening and trying to follow. Far too many of those suffering under a leader who have not found their voice try to stuff the hopelessly too small airline pillow into their ears only to discover no relief from their efforts. Those that lack a developing (or even developing) voice push people away.
Finding One’s Voice Takes Many Hours of Making Sounds
If you are a parent and its time for your child to find their voice then get some earplugs, turn up the stereo and endure it. It’s just like the potty training stage that’s on it’s way, or the taking an afternoon nap stage that just went away — it’s just a stage. Eventually your child develops the ability to speak and communicate. They learn to speak by imitating you, the characters in their favorite DVD, and all the other people in their lives. But there comes a time for imitation to cease and originality to begin.
The trap many leaders fall into is trying to be someone they are not. In Preacher Land (my Oz and where I hang out), many young preachers imitate preachers they respect and want to emulate. They copy their sermons, their illustrations, even down to their hand gestures and way of dress. They may even become exact copies of their idol, but they have not developed their own voice. They are more like the parrot in the pet store than people who add to life’s discussion. Don’t parrot others, speak for yourself — speak your own thoughts and ideas. If you do this there will many times when others poke holes into your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. This only causes you to think even further (which is ok).
Eventually, with time and having enough of these experiences you begin to develop your own voice.
*For more discussion on this specific point, I would highly recommend Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers book, chapter two “The 10,000 – hour rule”
What If I Have Nothing To Say?
If you talk with someone who has a beautiful singing voice to name one of their favorite songs, and can they sing some from it, most will do it without a second thought. They have a talent that is developing and they enjoy sharing it with other people. It is only when we do not see the value of our voice that we try to keep it silent.
The fear of a young leader is that they have not lived long enough or had enough life experience to have anything of value to say. Or, they may think, “I don’t hold a position (with enough) authority, so why would anyone want to listen to me?”
Discovering our voice and what to say is a process. No writer sits down with pad and pen or computer and writes a first draft perfect essay, novel, or poem. Our thoughts have a first draft, then they are edited, rewritten, proofed, and many times at this point even sit on a shelf for further thought. This process if refined as it is thought through. Your voice is also refined as you use and exercise it. If you don’t begin the process, then you will never know where it may lead. If all you do is copy others then you will never discover how beautifully unique you are.
You have something to say, but you have to say it with your own voice, and that voice needs to be developed.
Jeremiah 1:6-10 “Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.’ 7 But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a youth;’ for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.’ 9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Saying It Louder Does Not Make Your Idea Any Better
Poorly designed ideas are often hidden in the volume of defensive person’s voice. If someone can’t articulate why they disagree with you, explain their own thoughts, or are not willing to dialogue about something, they may simply try to talk over you or talk louder than you. They may exercise poor logic in their diatribe (like straw man, red herring, ad hominem, etc.) As a leader you have to guard against this fallacy in your own voice. Don’t talk louder if someone disagrees with you; just continue to rationally think through and explain your position.
Also, when people begin to raise their voices and speak over each other they become focused on what they are going to say next. They stop listening and discussion ceases. The fight may rage on but any possibility of winning a person over to their side is gone until things cool back down.
Your Voice Changes With Age
One of the most beautiful sounds is a senior adult choir in a church. It reminds me of days in my childhood when I would go to church with my grandparents. I would sit in between them on a stack of hymnals (so I could see the preacher). We would stand and sing the old hymns of Baptist tradition and I would hear my grandmothers and grandfathers voices. As they sang, “victory in Jesus,” and “On a hill far away . . .” their voices would shake because of their age. But it was beautiful none-the-less.
As we grow older our voice changes. From toddlerhood, puberty, from maturity, and to eventual old age, our voices change slowly over time. But it should never cease to speak. When you lead, speak from where you are now in your journey. As a thirty-something my voice is radically different than when I was in college, and as I approach fifty it is different even more. It is seasoned with a mortgage, children, marriage, and over twenty-five years of ministry. What I say now and how I say it, is different than when I was in college. But one should not wait until “maturity” or old age to say something. Each stage of life has something to add to the conversation. Just say it in humility — because we all have some more to learn.
So start putting original ideas out there, respect others but don’t copy them, and continue to refine your voice. You have something to say. Start talking. I’m listening.
 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, The Story of Success (New York, New York; Back BayBooks, 2008) 35.