The tough moments in our organizations are not when we deal with complaints and opposition from within. These you may grapple with and resolve. Once the problem surfaces we provide resources, negotiate, and communicate or bargain and come to terms. The real challenge comes from the units that are generally silent, not vocal and who even when neglected never crib nor complain. As leaders we tend to take silence for granted or wrongly believe that all is well. Such leadership is not equitable and surely enormous harm may erupt in the organization without warning.

How does this happen despite our best effort to do be fair and just toward all the constituents in our organizations? A Chinese parable translated by W. Chan Kim and Renee A. Mauborgne captures the ‘unseen space of leadership’ to explain this beautifully in the “Sound of the Forest” story which also appeared in the HBR in 1992.

Sound of silence

“Back in the third century A.D., the King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics of being a good ruler. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the Ming-Li Forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.

When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear. “Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.” When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already?

For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had ever heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. The feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy. “These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,” he reflected.

When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. “Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheardthe sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.” The master nodded approvingly. “To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings un-communicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desire”.

The parable is extremely eloquent and brings to fore a supreme truth – the real challenge of leadership lies in the intangibles. We go for the obvious and the rational-  as our senses are not tuned to ‘hear the unheard’.


About dilipnaidu

An open mind! Love to share my thoughts and a keenness to learn. An engineer and a MBA I had a wonderful innings in the Army and later moved to consultancy and teaching. My current interests are music and growing culinary herbs. Love to play golf and do yoga regularly. I am serious on "Living life less seriously". A warm welcome to you be well and be cheerful always.

34 responses »

  1. Hello Dilip,
    Thank you for providing this link to me. I loved the post, as it made me think I need to “listen” more closely and with more of my heart. I also need to think of how to do this and when and where. My own intuition tells me this is a lesson that is greater than I can now comprehend, and if I strive to understand it, a whole new “land” will be opened before me.
    Not only did I enjoy reading the post, but I also enjoyed reading the comments and discussion that followed this post. I would like to know some of these people.
    YOU, my friend, have a lovely blog. And I will definitely be back to see what else I might discover here.
    Thank you.



    • dilipnaidu says:

      Hi Bethany,

      A warm welcome to you. I am quite overwhelmed at the four comments and the kind words on my posts.

      Glad you enjoyed the essence of this Chinese wisdom. You are right we do need to ponder and think on such unseen forces and the more we do our lives become meaningful.

      Your kind words of appreciation do make me feel humble and our common aim is to interact and exchange thoughts for whatever they are worth.

      Cheers 🙂 Dilip


  2. dilipnaidu says:

    Howdy Roshan,

    I think Parthiv meant Army officers are authoritarian in their style of leadership. The word ‘despot’ therefore was misplaced.

    Cheers 🙂


  3. Hi Dilip,
    Pl allow me to comment on Mr Parthiv Dave’s musings.
    Mr Dave-your understanding of your mother as an example of leadership is laudable. You may like to quote this example in your professional life. I can assure you a mother goes very well with the audience.I have been doing it successfully with my audience.
    You appear to be a great fan of your mother. Surely she has inspired you a lot. I am sure you will not even obliquely like to hear her to be called a despot. In Army an officer is like a mother to his men.The beauty is the men know it & yet they go where the officer tells them to go-with pride & honor for the sake of their mother-land. Despots can send people, even their own men to death; they can not lead them there. An Army Officer is a leader – OUT & OUT. Never a D….. , as someone may think.
    Pl forgive me if I have been brash & forthright in my comment. R L S


  4. Sriram says:

    The art of understanding subtle is what our Masters were always after. Adi Shankara infact started this whole discussion on the entire creation being ‘Maya’ just to get all of us to focus on the subtle and take the gross for what it is – GROSS. Gross is visible, ephemeral & thanks to our brains being wired towards visual perception dominance, gets to dominate mindspace as well. Hence effort has to be made to draw the mind away from gross and make it sensitive to subtle.

    Subtle is where the Substance is – Truth is & subtle doesn’t change (its changeless hence subtle). Thanks to explorations of the behavioral economists, we now have a happy situation where the East & West are not exactly saying different things but are complementing each others’ findings – West is doing the ‘experiments’ to establish the scientific proof for what the East has been saying since eons.

    Now the question is how can one turn to the subtle. When Shankara wrote the Vivekachoodamani, he focused on one quality that every human and by that virtue every Leader must have – Viveka – the art of discrimination – between gross & subtle; between changing & changeless; between the temporal & the permanent.

    Now, how does this apply in the context of a corporate ‘practical’ leader?

    a) By focusing on the permanent – its an automatic Long term view on things and hence automatically stresses on WHY rather than HOW – leading to creation of strategic intent / vision & missions that are ‘inspiring’ and ‘legacy’ oriented – like the amazing carbon neutral carpet maker Ray Anderson & his great company Interfaceflor –
    As a by product – his company has been growing very profitably (less naysayers say this is all utopian!) – here is his talk on TED-

    b) By accepting that ‘change’ is a constant for all things temporal, crisis & euphoria are viewed as ‘this too will pass’ thereby avoiding paralysis in crisis & success (‘success traps’ ensuring that organization continues in its present state – a different kind of paralysis)

    c) Clarity of thought, word & deed is a natural corollary of this focus & acceptance.

    d) Leaders tend to become more ‘human’ as the focus is on the subordinates’ career & growth rather than ‘temporary’ dips in performance

    e) conflicts due to diversity become a non-issue as – if the focus is on the changeless in humans then every human is to be treated as ‘SELF’ so we get a rich source of human innovation getting unleashed
    and so on…Thus the case for SUBTLE is well and truly established.

    So is there a simple ten-steps to subtlity? this is where all Our Masters have turned ‘philosophical’ instead of ‘prescriptive’ and obviously so. Nobody can be a greater enemy or greater friend of a human being than he himself – declares the Gita emphatically. So our Masters have also said – each to his own. Each blazes his OWN trail & ‘Realises’. And this do it yourself remedy has perhaps been the ‘bane’ why people seldom focus on this. However, the moment one understands that as the ‘disease’ is subjective so must be the ‘cure’ and there can’t be a ONE ‘ten-steps-to -viveka’, it seems the most ‘apt’ solution.

    What can be a common starting point is – to constantly remind ourselves that our focus should never waver from the permanence / from the changeless & the SUBTLE – and therefore the TRUTH.

    Jaagte Raho! Maintain the VIGIL!!



    • Dilip says:


      Awesome as always! Wonder what makes you tick?

      You have taken us in to the depth and essence of this theme. The links are revealing and bring out beautifully the difference between ‘why’ and ‘how’ and Ray Anderson’s – Interfaceflor .

      Going forward with ‘Viveka’ is a supreme truth and can come to us if we can keep in balance our mind and our actions.

      Thank you dear Sriram for this lovely piece! Regards & cheers!

      जागते रहो! सतर्कता कायम रहे!!


  5. Dilip says:

    Hi Chitra,

    It’s good to know that you liked this story on ‘hearing the unheard …’. A compliment coming from you means a lot! I am a regular reader of your articles and thoughts especially on the importance of being positive. People who live a life full of purpose and help others to do so fascinate me.

    Well I too am happy to note that you have strong bonds with the army. I look forward to connect with your husband and and exchange thoughts – on leadership and other issues.

    Many thanks and best regards,



  6. Chitra says:

    Dilip, I didn’t know that you were in the army; that establishes a kinship between us 🙂

    Lovely post, love the story……and the pictures……must send my husband to your page……he is a leader and I believe that all leaders must be intuitive enough to know the ones they lead…


  7. Parthiv Dave says:

    Hello Sir,

    This is indeed a nice post… with inspirational and thought-provoking content. Till now, I haven’t seen any such leader in professional space. Having said, my mother is an example of such Leadership. She understands each and every unsaid expression…

    Somehow I am getting attracted by Chinese Parables. Thank you for introducing a new area of literature to explore.


    P..S.: If possible, kindly change this current theme. It’s a bit difficult to concentrate and stay focused with this theme. Just a suggestion, Sir. 🙂


    • Dilip says:

      Dear Parthiv congrats on completing your MBA and wish you exciting days ahead. I appreciate you sharing the example of your Mom as it does bring out beautifully the deeper meaning of the ‘Parable’. I believe all mothers are blessed with this gift of ‘hearing the unheard’.

      Reflecting back on my Army career I know of a few such leaders who did have the ability to sense things beyond the realms of the rational mind. In addition their real life acts of extreme courage and bravery are well known and a source of inspiration for others.

      Hey I wanna know which theme are you meaning? The Blog header or this post heading? But I am eager to review once I get to know your mind 🙂

      BTW your blog ain’t moving perhaps due to your MBA final busy schedule! All the best.


      • Parthiv Dave says:

        Thank you for your reply sir.

        I am surprised to know that in Army there are such leaders. I always thought that in Army Despotism rules.

        Sir, with “theme” I meant background color, look-n-feel of this blog. Just a suggestion! Regarding my blog site, I have few topics piled up in my mind. But right now I am trying to juggle with lots of things – dissertation, office, and home. I will soon resume my writings and post them.

        It was nice to see you on last Saturday. See you soon.



  8. Vedant says:

    Dear Sir

    Hope you doing good. Its really a nice post “Heard- Unheard sounds”. Its a very inspiring post. I will try to intimate in life also.



    • Dilip says:

      Hey Vedant,

      You are so welcome. Yes the Chinese parable gives us much to think about. And the comments too add many interesting inputs.

      Regards and best luck.


  9. Lubna says:

    A beautiful post with a beautiful photograph.


  10. Manish says:

    Hi Sir how r u. It’s a treat to read ur posts… n da much appreciated forum that it creates. wonderful!!!


    • Dilip says:

      Hey Manish thanks for calling on after long. I know you are busy and more so as you have recently moved – up in the hierarchy – congrats. Best regards.


  11. Gary Clayton says:


    I enjoy reading your posts, as they contain so much Eastern wisdom that I rarely encounter in the US. Your post takes me in several directions.

    1. I am reminded of traveling through France and Italy. The French are generally quiet, speaking at low volumes and in soft tones. Dinner in a French restaurant is peaceful, with conversations going at every table, but not disturbing any other table. In Italy, it seems that to be alive is to be speaking – loudly. It is difficult to carry on a conversation in an Italian restaurant without shouting to be heard. My conclusion is the amount of foreground noise/conversation often is reflective of the culture and not what is really going on in the room.

    2. I am also reminded of sailing. Sailing is the process of going somewhere by bringing the boat into harmony with nature. When the sails are properly trimmed, most of the noise of the boat disappears and one can let go of the helm as the boat seems to sail itself. What are left are the sounds of nature (wind and water), the beauty of nature (land forms, fish, dolphins and seabirds) and the camaraderie of one’s companions. Yet one must remain vigilant for emerging weather conditions and the sudden intrusion of fast vessels.

    3. In the business literature, there is much discussion of leadership style, ranging from authoritarian to democratic. Authoritarian is usually counterproductive, as the leader hears no one but himself/herself. Purely democratic is often counterproductive in business, as the leader becomes totally subservient to the members, hearing all that they say and trying to react to what verges on a cacophony of directions. Collaborative is most often the optimum leadership style, in which the leader and the members engage in meaningful dialog and the leader holds the vision for the organization. It requires that all parties go below the surface conversation and commit to hearing and helping each other. The leader, especially, must hear not only what is said, but what is NOT said – and what is MEANT in what is said and not said.

    Beyond these musings, I also deeply appreciate the photos you provide in your post. They provide much to contemplate.

    Gary Clayton


    • Dilip says:

      Hi Gary,

      Your thoughts so beautifully articulated are awesome. Your interpretation on the cultural difference bring out some interesting lessons especially in the globalized world.

      Yes the joys and the calm of sailing resonate perfectly with the essence of the Chinese parable. I think sailing and playing golf too is very similar – a feeling of well being and in touch with nature.

      Your expert views on leadership styles is a great piece of learning. It’s true that autocratic styles now finds few takers – even in the army I can say for sure it is the collaborative approach that works well in most situations. Your last line “The leader, especially, must hear not only what is said, but what is NOT said – and what is MEANT in what is said and not said” is the principle for all budding and experienced leaders to pay heed.

      It is gracious of you to appreciate the photos. For a novice like me it is very encouraging.

      I thank you for your enriching comments. With kind regards.



  12. Hi Sir,

    I have no words to express my gratitude to you for such post. I always read you blog and learn from comments of others. This time , I have made attempt to put my comment.

    If People are not able to listen their words of innersoul then how can they will listen to the silence of others. leadership is only within us. We are commenting only when we are not there and when once there we forget about our words. Knowing and doing is different.

    First of all we have to develop the habit/practice of listening to unheards. The skill of listening to others(heards/unheards) will empower a person to perform effectively in personal , social and professional upto his/her potential. Because if you know things properly then only you can solve. You will get to know only when you listen.

    I will mention the live example for which India and TATA Group are admired most presently by the world people only due to the listening skill (to unheards)of legendary business man Ratan Tata only. He has gifted the world’s cheapest car “nano” to the people. Nobody has told or suggested to come with such a cheapest car.

    Warm regards,

    Your dear sashi.


    • Dilip says:

      Dear Sashi .. Nice comments. Even as a student with all the busy activities you made time to pursue your spiritual activities. So it is natural for you to write on ‘inner voice’ with a firm belief. It is these very qualities of yours that have made you a valuable asset in your company. Thanks for your comments and best regards. Take care.


  13. Sahajo says:

    A really very inspiring post Sir! Thank you so much!!

    “During the course of interaction between individuals the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words but when SILENCE is not understood.”

    It is very true that such leaders are hard to find in today’s world who can hear the unheard or uncommunicated. But if we bring it into our practice, like Prince T’ai (not by going to the forest of course, but in our day-to-day lives, may it be home or at work), i’m sure we can make it possible.

    Let’s consider a simple example. whenever we read newspaper, we see only the words but never see the blank white space behind the words. Similarly, every time we think, we focus only on our thoughts and never go beyond our thoughts where the SILENCE lies. That “SILENCE is more musical than any song.” We must learn to catch THAT Silence. This is a real challenge and interesting as well.

    There exists such kind of a practice wherein we need to catch as many sounds as possible and also try to hear minute (called as ‘sukshma’) sounds surrounding us. Once we bring this practice into our daily lives, leaders will further definitely be able to listen to people’s hearts, just like the ruler.
    To share about my own experience with you, this practice has been quite helpful for me in understanding people around me. And may it be the nature or the people, I really enjoy the Sound of Silence!

    Thank you…..


    • Dilip says:

      Hi Sahajo,

      Profound thoughts that convey a beautiful message. “…… not when there is misunderstanding about words but when SILENCE is not understood” is so true in our lives and can lead to avoidable unpleasantness.

      ‘sukshma’ – I am not sure of the English term perhaps the nearest to it is ‘subtle’. You are right this ability comes only after practice and it’s inspiring to note that you are actually doing so. Your thoughts gives us many points to ponder.

      Thank you for sharing. Regards.


  14. Somali Gupta says:

    The silence holds the voices of the unheard, the shadows of the groups and the projected anxieties of the unaccepted..


    • Dilip says:

      Prof. Somali,

      This one sentence is so very meaningful and vibes beautifully with the Chinese parable. I consider it a honor to have you visit and contribute.

      With kind regards and thanks.


  15. Geetha says:

    Dear Sir,

    Great post and thank you!

    And when we talk about hearing the unheard, It’s really all about sensitivity and the power to give appropriately?

    John Keats is one of my favourite poets and like he said in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

    “Heard Melodies Are Sweet, but Those Unheard Are Sweeter”.

    And here’s an interesting article from the Corporate Dossier dated 4th June, 2010:

    Thanks and regards,



    • Dilip says:

      Hi Geetha,

      How well John Keats quote and also the lessons in the stories mentioned in the link resonate with the theme of this post. Thank you very much..

      Kind regards.


  16. VED OJHA says:

    This post uncovers the intangible aspect of effective leadership, wherein effectiveness of leadership can be cultivated through tangilizing the “intangibles” which help leaders immensely in the longer run.

    Yes! its true that “silence” doesn’t mean “all is well”, maybe this silence could act as silent ocean notifying about forthcoming storm; so, its a duty/responsibility of a good leader to always activate his/her antenna to receive such signals of “silence” & find out the reason behind it before it acts as a silent bombing device to destroy all efforts of a leader.

    Of course, “A good leader should posses a good listening feature within” but to listen the the “silence” & analyse over it will definitely add value to the listening capability of an effective leader.

    Thanks to you sir! that you always unveil such unforeseen aspects of management which is helping us throughout in our self-developing process of becoming an effective leader.


    • Dilip says:

      Dear Ved,

      How nice to read your comment. With your meditative practices and quiet efficiency I am certain you are an ‘enlightened’ manager already. I wish you all the success in your present and future assignments.


  17. Raju Nair says:

    This Post is really inspiring…to say the least…such good leaders are hard to find in todays world…the quote for today is “Crying baby gets milk first”
    When meeting with managers one has to make sure that they hear us loud and clear about our wants and needs.
    I feel such intuitive leadership comes in only once there is no threat to own position ….in todays corporate its Dog eat Dog…and failure is rarely taken as learning process


    • Dilip says:

      Yes its true managing thru’ intuitions is the highest form and probably found in leaders and people who operate at the ‘self-actualized’ levels. Such folk remain calm even under ‘threat to their own position’. Thus their thought process is always crystal clear. But these are rare indeed.

      Thanks I appreciate your frank take on this. Regards!


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