Leadership as Dialogue

Imagine a world where every conversation holds the power to foster deeper connections and provide value through interconnectivity. In this micro-tool, I share a powerful metaphor that has transformed my leadership philosophy and practice.


Ben Pascut

6/23/20233 min read

Ben Pascut
Ben Pascut

Ever had those awkward moments when you’re desperately trying to keep a conversation alive? We’ve all been there, stuck with a chatty stranger or acquaintance, silently praying for a hero phone call to rescue us from the abyss of small talk.

But what about when we’ve found ourselves on the receiving end of this equation? You see, during my time at Brown and Yale, I would meet new students left and right, who must have secretly wished for a miracle phone call to politely free themselves from the guy with a foreign accent and a bow tie.

Here’s a million-dollar question: What would our personal and professional lives look like if every dialogue would foster deeper connections and give value through interconnectivity? What if life were an unending dialogue with every word caring the power to shape our reality, inspire change, and open infinite possibilities for growth?

In this micro-tool, I am thrilled to share with you one of my all-time favorite dialogue quotes, which holds the imaginative power to transform how we see and lead ourselves and others. The quote revolutionized my leadership philosophy and practice and changed how I approach every encounter with a fellow human being.

So, without further ado, let me share the quote with you.

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then, you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. It is from this “unending conversation” that the materials of your drama arise.

(Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action 3rd ed. 1941. Univ. of California Press, 1973)

The Dialogue Precedes Us.

In the grand unending conversation of life, our leadership emerges from a history of interactions that long predate us. Before we utter our first words, a rich long discourse unfolds before us, giving context to our thoughts and forming our view of ourselves and the world.

We humbly listen to the voices around us, who themselves have listened to the voices before them, allowing their wisdom to echo in our present. It is a beautiful wonder to accept that leadership is never about starting anything new but merely joining an ongoing, ever-evolving conversation established by those who came before us. Listen before we speak, we must. There is no other way to formulate our thoughts and speak value into an unending dialogue, now entrusted to us to carry on to those after us.

The Dialogue Promotes Others.

Why do leaders often speak the most and the loudest, asserting unwavering authority and dominating all conversations? The truth is, no leader has all-encompassing knowledge to assert dominance over every dialogue. Rather, we have limited knowledge and must actively rely on the guidance of our team members. With humility and openness, we must accept our roles as latecomers to dialogues outside our areas of expertise, promoting and amplifying the voices of others who carry with them the discourse of their respective disciplines. In this way, we embrace a transformational shift from “I” to “we” and tap into the power of collective knowledge.

The Dialogue Proceeds Us.

When we finally get to speak, no matter how important our speech acts are, they are not as important as stopping the dialogue from continuing without and after us - the dialogue that predates us will continue long after we’re gone. We’re truly not that big of a deal. In the grand scheme, we are a few sentences in the middle of history, making our way in mere footnotes. And yet this is our time to make our voices heard. So, what will we say? Whatever we say, and however we’ll say it, holds significance. Because those who come after us depend on our words to create their own narratives. We are responsible for transferring knowledge that inspires and empowers, furthering a legacy that will transform their lives toward well-being and flourishing. Let us choose our words wisely. The exchanges of words in life’s unending conversation are not isolated events – all come together to say, “This is our life, our leadership, our legacy!”

In embracing the concept of leadership as an unending conversation, we harness the collective wisdom and unite the diversity of voices from the past into the present to forge a better future. Every conversation, even those with a chatty stranger, is an opportunity to turn small talk into interconnection and carries the potential for progress. Let’s use our words thoughtfully, ensuring that the narratives build a better future.