Sometimes leadership is merely “time” and a “simple cup of coffee”.

In January, I received a call from Mervyn, an old acquaintance of mine who had recently moved to Austria after joining a large multinational company. We agreed to meet up for a cup of coffee at one of the local Viennese cafes.

We started talking about life in Austria, and a large part of the initial discussion was about Mervyn’s new company and colleagues, as well as the change in culture moving from South Africa to Austria. These two countries are on opposite sides of the globe, with very different cultures, not to mention languages.

He proceeded to ask me about the company that I was working for, but I purposely kept my answers short, as I could see he was a little stressed – something that I could understand, as moving to a new country can be stressful for most people.

I had suspended my own agenda and allowed Mervyn to tell me about his experiences, this new chapter, and the challenges in his life. Halfway through our meeting, as Mervyn came to the end of his story, I paused, remaining silent for a few minutes. As I could sense his stress, I looked at him and asked, “Mervyn, how are you feeling, how are you doing?” He responded by saying that not many people ask the question “how are you?” with sincerity. Mervyn then teared up, clearly extremely emotional. He told me that his mother had passed away three weeks earlier, after tripping and falling down some stairs.

Mervyn mentioned that in the past three weeks since the tragic accident, I was the first person that had shown an interest in asking him how he was doing. This gave him the opportunity to show emotion and release some of his sadness, lifting a weight off his chest.

I thought about his comment on how people no longer sincerely ask how one is. His statement – unfortunately true – really struck home. In today’s world, many people have lost that caring approach to a degree. They do not stop to give their time and attention, or even just listen to someone else. I thought about how often people say “hello” in passing and then through habit add “how are you?”, without truly expecting or wanting a real answer.

Here was Mervyn, new in the country, having recently lost his mother in a tragic accident, and sadly for three weeks he was not given any time by his colleagues or friends, be it face-to-face or over the phone, just to ask him how he was doing.

Meeting me to have that simple cup of coffee made a huge difference to Mervyn; it gave him the space and the time to tell his story, but more importantly it gave him the opportunity to share his grief with someone. Our meeting extended well past the hour mark, but it was important for Mervyn. He needed the time; he needed that cup of coffee.


I believe that, as leaders, we need to show a caring approach, giving our time to others and allowing them to tell their stories. Our role is to listen with intent, to take in what they are saying, and to respond to comments and issues that are significant to them at the time.

However, this begs the question: do leaders in various levels of organisations understand the importance and significance of listening with intent, suspending their own agenda and authority, and letting those they are engaging with tell their story?

Listening with intent and being cognitive of what is important to those we engage with, as well as placing enough focus on people rather than objects, builds trust. In the end, it contributes to healthy, open, and honest discussions and, in turn, strengthens the overall company culture. Listening with intent and showing interest reflect the leader’s sincerity and caring approach to members of their team or others with whom they engage.


I like the saying that originated in Arabic culture centuries ago: “Speech is silver, silence is golden.”

By highlighting the value of silence over speech, this shows that as leaders, we do not always have to fill the space with words. At times it is more valuable to simply keep quiet, giving others the platform or space to do the talking, share their feelings, and importantly, the chance to tell their story.

Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking “noise” and “telling” is communication, not realising that in many instances “silence is golden”. Silence is an important part of good communication; it is in silence that authentic communication often unconsciously becomes “present” through gestures, facial expressions, body language, signs, visual literacy, and many other unspoken signals.

Silence gives the opportunity for listening and active communication. Often, when the leader is silent, the person they are engaging with can feel the available space in which to tell their story. There is no need to always direct or lead the discussion, nor to fill space in communication with questions, or simply “noise”. It is clear that the more silence is present when engaging, the more we tend to hear.

Silence is an important aspect of “being” with another person, especially when they are troubled, or going through a period of sadness and/or stress, similar to the minutes of silence during my cup of coffee with Mervyn.

To divert slightly from the main point topic, consider the significance of the well-known “minute of silence” used to remember a person or people who have died. The silence gives so much meaning to the situation. There is no need for noise or filling airspace with words … a typical example of silence being golden.


Leaders need to do a lot less telling and a lot more listening if they want their efforts to add value. For example, as leaders, imagine making the change from running daily safety talks to safety engagement sessions, or from site audits to site engagement walkabouts. This is the change needed, with leaders being on the shop floor, not focusing all their attention on the conditions and controls but instead on the people and, by doing so, engaging and listening with intent. This will go a long way in further developing the desired culture of any organisation.


In my book entitled Humanising Leadership in Risk, I provide some fundamental strengths of a good leader. Here are some points related to giving time to others:

  • Have a caring-helping approach towards others.
  • Be accessible.
  • Build trust through open and honest engagement.
  • Show empathy.
  • Have a listening rather than telling approach (with the use of open questions).
  • Show respect.
  • Be aware and alert of the use of gestures, metaphors, and body language.
  • Ensure a balanced focus between objects and subjects.
  • Acknowledge others as human beings with needs, feelings, and emotions.
  • Be aware of the language used.

As leaders, we cannot be good at all of the above key characteristics all of the time. It is therefore important that we make an effort to consciously think about our approach and the way that we reflect interest and care to our teams and those that we engage with. Therefore, it is important to take time for self-reflection after engaging with people. As we cannot see our own unconscious behaviours, gestures, and body language, it is at times beneficial to ask others for their feedback on how we engaged with and came across to others. How was our body language perceived, did we give enough time, did we suspend our authority and own agenda, and, very importantly, did we allow the person to tell their story?


Recently, together with a colleague of mine, I was on a maintenance shutdown at an operation in Finland. Whilst on site, we noticed that work was being conducted inside the smokestack of the boiler plant. On enquiring, we were informed that there was a contractor conducting tests on a platform, but that the work was almost complete. We waited for the work to finish, so that we could engage with the contractor.

After approaching and introducing ourselves, we asked if she would mind having a chat with us, to which she agreed. We opened the engagement by asking her to tell us her story, to explain what the task was and how she was feeling after the day’s activities. As part of the discussion, she mentioned that she would soon leave to return home to her family. She mentioned that she had been on site for a week and was missing her husband and two children. Following through on her comments prompted a discussion on where she lived and how she was returning home.

By giving her the time and the space to tell her story, she opened up and used phrases like “long week”, “busy day”, “missing my family” and “long road”. Because we focused on these statements, it was clear to us that she had a long drive back home.

Having been informed of the distance of the drive home, and knowing that she had just finished a long day in hot working conditions, we were a bit concerned that she might be tired and fatigued. We mentioned our concern for her safety, but she assured us that she was feeling fine and would manage the drive back home to her family, taking regular stops when needed.

We had no direct influence on her return drive, but in keeping with the caring approach I invited her for a cup of coffee in the site’s boardroom. She appreciated the offer and after packing up her equipment and loading her vehicle, she joined me for that cup of coffee, prior to leaving the site and starting her long journey home. On leaving, I offered her a take-away coffee: “one for the road”.

This was just another case of giving someone some time in her day and sharing a simple cup of coffee – no different to the time spent with my old acquaintance Mervyn, having a cup of coffee in a cafe in Vienna, listening to his story, and allowing him to share the sadness of losing his mother.

In both cases, maybe this was more than just a simple cup of coffee, but rather a cup of coffee symbolising significance, reflecting care, and humanising our approach to others.

About The Author

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.

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