Leadership

Lessons of the quiet leader


Because I had a strange weekend (and because I'm kind of weird anyway) I'm feeling kind of philosophical today. For one thing, my dad was named as Honorary Mayor of the community that I hail from and it made him furious. Let me explain.

I'm from a small section of a big city that is kind of a Mayberry-on-steroids. Everyone knows everyone else -- this fact being both good and bad -- and we're very insular. My father is a World War II vet whose personal credo seems to be "If your good deeds get noticed by anyone, then they don't count." So you can imagine how mortified he was when a town committee bestowed this title on him (which also, unfortunately, includes a ride in the yearly festival parade). His main beef is that he's not "active in the community," meaning he's not politically active. What he won't understand is that this honor was bestowed on him for his lifelong, behind-the-scenes works of charity that benefited people in small, but cumulative, ways.

In his book Leading Quietly, Harvard Business School professor Joseph L. Badaracco talks about the effectiveness of leaders who don't necessarily embody the powerful personality and outward bravado that is usually associated with heroes and leadership. He's talking about leaders who lead quietly, far from the limelight. He maintains that it is sometimes the quiet, hard-working leaders who sometimes are the best.

He says: "Bold strokes and a powerful personality are a heroic leader's defining qualities. But far from the limelight works a more practical, circumspect type of leader, one who can transorm and inspire -- and win."

I've known both -- the leaders who are bigger than life, who seek to make radical changes just to get their face on the map, and the leaders who keep the wheels rolling, making small incremental adjustments that make growth possible. Big splashes get more attention in the corporate world ("He completely revamped the system in seven a half minutes with a third of the staff!"), but they also sometimes have a disruptive effect on the people "on shore." In other words, if your leader wants to institute a wide-sweeping change mostly because it will get him noticed, you may be in trouble.

Albert Schweitzer, in his autobiography, said that the sum of small and obscure deeds is "a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition."

The drawback is that the actions of the quiet, circumspect leader are often subtle so it's easy to think nothing is happening behind the scenes. After all, we've been conditioned to respect the outwardly heroic.

Think about the great bosses you've had. Did they tend to be one of these types over the other?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

25 comments
AllenTech
AllenTech

Not everyone can be a silent leader and be very effective being one. That is why they are very special, they are so few. They do not need policies, instructions, law to make other people follow them. It is the way they do things, the way they say things, the way they look at things that influences other people. They lead knowingly but not loudly, they whisper not shout. They are the one of the type of person you would want to be with, around with. I know no one such but I am sure that one or two have been around me. That's how they are, like the wind, you feel them but you don't see them.

shraven
shraven

The rest of the time you should be smoothing out the system. Barring the need to rally masses of people behind a revolution, which requires great charisma (often found in people who are also big egos), ego-trippers should not be at the helm in either situation.

mick
mick

But.... I'm an ICT manager who is a bit more quiet then the bigg boss. However they tell me I'm not a great leader because I'm not shoooting off the mountain what exactly we have achieved... so. I think my way is the bewst one, but they think differently.. I'm the minor.. big problem there :D

minda
minda

When I think back on the great leaders I've seen in action, both the incremental changers and the bold visionaries have been very effective--and I've seen both styles be very ineffective, too. To me, a lot depends on the situation the leader finds himself or herself in. When there's a widespread perception that things are going to hell (whether it's true or not) bold strokes are needed to keep people from jumping ship, energize them and give them the feeling that things will get better. This is why some leaders specialize in turnarounds, they're good at bold strokes and at getting everyone rowing in the same (new) direction. One hopes it's the right direction but in that kind of scenario, any change tends to be viewed as a positive. When things are running smoothly, incremental changes are probably better, otherwise the leader may be seen as fixing what isn't broken. Minda Zetlin The Geek Gap www.geekgap.com

Mikiel
Mikiel

"However they tell me I'm not a great leader..." Who are "they"? If it's your underlings, you shouldn't let them feel underappreciated. If you're like me, you may find it easier to tout your area's successes if you frame it as someone else's success. "I'd like to congratulate the architecture group for..." "Thanks, but the real praise goes to Jack who had the idea for the new system." Mr. L's newsletter idea is a good one too. Also, if your company has an intranet, they're often looking for news/material/highlights to post.

Mr L
Mr L

If you fall into the "Quiet Man" category, it's often not your style to blow your own horn. In fact, it can be downright uncomfortable, can't it? That's one of the challenges in the corporate world when you are managing behind the scenes, quietly. The reality is; publishing our successes is an important part of the job. It brings attention to the people really doing the work...namely our teams...and it lets senior management know what you are doing for the organization. That it needs to be done doesn't mean, however, that it's easy for a lot of managers. Some things you may want to consider; a periodic newsletter (or if one exists already in your organization, making sure your area gets a dedicated space in it) that highlights what your team is working on, projects accomplished, etc (make sure you describe the business value of the project or accomplishment!), a small piece of dedicetd time at monthly/quarterly staff meetings to tell your team's story, or perhaps scheduled time with the appropriate group of IT executive management...structured as an informational meeting designed to keep them up to speed on what's going on. Just some thoughts...

brent.harmon
brent.harmon

To be a successful leader, you have to understand the type of leader you are and accept the fact that you are not the other. Then, you must accurately assess the type of change required and select the type of leader for that change. If you are a sweeping leader and you are faced with a situation requiring several small changes, don't be so stubborn to think that you can do that. Find a leader who excels in small changes and have them take on that task!

sctang73
sctang73

Your last 2 paragraphs rang too true for me. I have been in the technology industry, mostly as a consultant for over a decade now. Politics has unfortunately been involved w/ every "leader' I've ever had the pleasure or displeasure to work for/ with. Many times, the apolitical leader who only wants to get the job done and done RIGHT will be unjustly scrutinized. (S)He is the outcast, the person "isn't with us, so (s)he must be against us". These are the type of people who we desperately need to stay, but constantly get hung out to dry. Why? Because the main weakness of these specific people is their lack of communication - even when it comes down to defending their own images or to prevent someone from stealing their credit, much less thunder. As for the outspoken leaders - not all are bad... just most. Unfortunately, there is usually a level of arrogance tied to these outward personalities. After all, these people rely on their gift of gab moreso than their real world skills - and you can't sell if you don't believe in your product. Whether the arrogance is justified or not, humility is always a necessity. From my experience, these people are also usually surrounded by suck-ups. Too many of these same leaders have also been the worst offenders in terms of cronyism and nepotism. As for my own personal experience as a leader - I will be the 1st to admit that practice will eventually lead to perfection. In the past, I was dubbed "the janitor" as I specialized in putting out fires and cleaning up messes - usually caused by other people. When I sought for and finally received a promotion to assistant dept manager, I quickly (and painfully) realized MANY of my flaws. I was still stuck in "worker" mode and not "manager" mode. I was not overseeing and guiding, but continually doing. This did not help my team grow. I had to shift from "honor student" to "teacher's aid", and it was not easy. Going from hands-on all the time to project management most of the time was a tremendous learning experience. I learned that the ONE KEY THING a good leader MUST have is the ability to communicate. Once you can get people to listen, it does not matter how softly you speak. You will be heard.

FlatAffect
FlatAffect

As you say, it depends on the situation. President Bush isn't exactly a glad hander, although he tries and usually gets his tang tongueled. I think, though, that he has some traits that make for a good manager. He's organized and decisive, not that he gets much credit for either one. When Mitt Romney headed the 2000 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, I only saw him a few times when news media sought him out or his position required it. He did a very effective job, considering that the whole project was a financial disaster when he took it over and turned it into a success. Now, Romney is running for Bush's job and he can't be self-effacing and modest. If you can't communicate well, you can't answer the inevitable attacks or make the case for your decisions, which will always be criticized, because that how democracies operate, and because nobody gets to rule by fiat. He/she has to persuade, and, as Bush found out, persuading once won't keep others persuaded. Despite the fact that he followed the path nearly all Democrat leaders had supported before 9/11, once it was not in their interest to agree with him, they had no reluctance to reverse themselves and dig up excuses to savage him and try to cripple him. This isn't new. It happened in Greece and Rome, as well. Winston Churchill was voted out as soon as the war was won. In a business, a quiet leader still has to be a great communicator, because goals and policies are useless if those supposed to achieve them don't understand them. The old saying, "It's amazing how much we can get done when it doesn't matter who gets the credit," is true, but often it does matter a lot to rivals. A good leader picks good subordinates and works to eliminate frictions, but sometimes a leader has to take over and function within a structure and with personnel he/she didn't choose. At such times, the best way to stifle rivalries might be to be the unquiet leader.

taz666
taz666

I have found that I need to take a balanced approach to leadership. Building champions and developing alliances for planned initiatives requires a certain amount of marketing and self promotion. On the other hand, there is a need to build confidence in your team(s) by adopting interim measures to streamline processes to reduce the impact of the change resulting from the initiative. This balancing act does not lend itself to effective leadership if your "chosen" style is on the extremes of the scale one way or the other. Leadership for me means having to take an operational, tactical and strategic outlook. Being able to articulate each of these plans to both the team(s), stakeholders, customers, and the executive. Maintaining a healthy level of drive, a positive and generally optimistic outlook are key to building confidence in people. Take time to present your vision, using appropriate techniques and context for the audience. Operational staff will see benefits from a different perspective from the Executive. Taking this approach is also effective for determining the impacts of change. Structure change to be able to happen incrementally, even if one of the increments has to be revolutionary, based on dependencies that will offer a balance between value for money and the ability of the organisation to cope with the change. A clear map of the path from current state to future state can build and maintain confidence at all levels in the organisation. Deliver regularly, with 3-6 month timeframes for discrete parcels of work, implemented and ready for integration with the next.

georgef
georgef

I tend to agree with the authors, but also with our Woodstock poster here. The intense burner type leader can have major impact (and major failure) but history, I think, or at least what sticks out in my mind, shows that the quiet focused leader has had more impact. Consider World War II. We won the war and the peace thanks to the studied plans and executions of Gen George C. Marshall, as opposed to Gen George Patton, who inspired ( with a good deal of hype from the press and later Hollywood) us with his stolid determination. It would be an interesting exercise to look to the founders of the United States and try to figure out who was what type of leader nad how in conjunction, were some the most brilliant of all time. For example, Hamilton, flouty, bombastic, scheming, and eventually prematurely dead, but look at his achievments. He's a tough one to categorize this way. This is or should be an incredibly interesting discussion though you'll probably get a number of bombasts defending themselves.

comp974
comp974

it is usually the quiet leaders that are in it for the long haul, those with bold strokes, are usually short termers, not because the idea or they fizzel out, but because the limelight is somewhere else and the current situation has become boring... those who have a limelight attitude usually will jump ship because they must conquer something else.

mick
mick

We are about to post our achievement on intranet. It's just a reaction to the boards meaning. It's not me however :D

mick
mick

I'll agree on this one. THANKS

kbsookram
kbsookram

Depending on the situation, showmanship and charisma may be needed, while other times it requires a very light subtle touch. Many times you need to adapt depending on the audience as well as the circumstances. That said, most people feel more comfortable with one style or the other. Sometimes it helps to work with (or even through) others. If your bigger than life persona is a hindrance to really finding out whats wrong, work through someone thats more reserved. Likewise, if you need an evangelist, find the most charismatic person and work with him. But even that may have limitations. Stepping out of ones safety zone may be uncomfortable, but at times unavoidable.

Fairbs
Fairbs

bush is not a great leader. He may be decisive, but his decisions are poor. The consensus of political historians is that he will be considered the worst president to date. I think that he'll be considered the worst of all time. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/profile/story/9961300/the_worst_president_in_history http://blogs.salon.com/0002255/2003/09/23.html http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/01/AR2006120101475.html http://www.wildnesswithin.com/worst.html No opinion on Romney as I haven't heard much about him.

prakashcrao
prakashcrao

I see the quiet leaders as 'farmers' - people with the stoic-ness, intestinal fortitude, patience, and belief that time heals and smoothes; they tend to ride out bad times and keep an even temperament in good times. The ones with the bold strokes, flamboyance and splendor are the hunters; once the animal is captured or killed, its off to the next hunt, because farming is boring. Society needs both types. And being one or the other is as much an inevitability of personality as it is a personal choice.

minda
minda

...between being a high-profile leader and touting your team's accomplishments. I think we're talking about two different things here. The original article discussed larger-than-life leaders who make sweeping, very visible changes. This kind of leadership can be effective in turnaround situations, but can also be counterproductive, depending on the organization's needs at the time. If I understand right, what Mick and others are talking about is the need to publicize a team's achievements to the rest of the company, and perhaps the world at large. I believe this is a necessary task for every team and/or team leader. I don't know your situation...can you find another team member who likes the limelight to lead the publicity effort? One way or another you do have to highlight your team's achievements. Being an advocate for your team is an important part of your role as leader--and you can only be an effective advocate if the rest of the organization knows how valuable your team's accomplishments are. Best, Minda The Geek Gap www.geekgap.com

Fairbs
Fairbs

The article we're discussing is about leadership skills. You think that bush is a great leader. I don't. I don't have a political agenda, I just think bush is a lousy president and leader. The majority of Americans believe that as well. http://www.pollingreport.com/BushJob.htm True, two of my citations were biased. Other than the first one, I just picked a couple from a google search of 'worst president ever'. The Rolling Stone article, however, is based on an 'informal survey of 415 historians conducted by the nonpartisan History News Network'. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/profile/story/9961300/the_worst_president_in_history I've provided the link again and maybe you'll read the article this time.

jdclyde
jdclyde

Yet you only site people with a political agenda against Bush and the Bush Administration. Hmmmmm. What does that say about you?

gorman.mi
gorman.mi

This approach could be described as the "Uriah Heep" method...alas good ol' human nature steps in and the ego-manic, arrogant co-worker perveives the bhuddist leader as a weak, easy push-over. Like it, or not-Dog packs have a lot more in common with teams, the Alpha Male competes with contenders (witty put-downs, veiled threats, saracasm, ETC)and the more introverted types become fodder for the projects-their skills contributing to the Kudos of the manager/Team Leader. It is so wrong, and it should not be this way-but it IS this way. The only way for a more thoughtful, non-aggressive worker is to play the game, and conserve the real you for after-work.

prakashcrao
prakashcrao

I agree whole-heartedly, that in a perfect world, practicing servant leadership is the way to go (I prefer the term treating everyone as a customer). Unfortunately (my experience) in a world of competition between peers and ambition from reports to fill your shoes, your servant behavior results in your being trampled and made irrelevant as people abuse your humility, diligence, and respect for others to take advantage for their own ends. This is especially true in a organization where the only uniting factor between the employees is the need for a paycheck and a job. The one person who can and should practice servant leadership is the acknowledged absolute leader who has no insecurity or threat about being perceived as a easy target to step over. Usually a founder of a company or a masterful CEO or .. Unless we create a climate of cooperation, collaboration and mutual respect, any attempt at servant leadership is a one way trip to irrelevance.

georgef
georgef

DM: Time very well spent on the soap box. I am also of this type of manager and believe its the best approach from the humanity point of view. I have also been a "boss" for a long time and have never had an unhappy employee. Perhaps I'm lucky or its just evidence of my belief that everyone can be reached, outside of the criminally insane. I hope you have a continued fulfilling and rewarding management career. gf

mcgeehand
mcgeehand

For me, leadership is exemplifying the behavior that you hope to instill in your peers, reports, and superiors. I practice servant leadership, that is, I perform tasks at all levels of the organization. Willingness to roll up your sleeves and get the job done demonstrates to all that the leader has the necessary skills and enthusiasm to propel a business forward. It also implicitly states that you respect the work of those ?in the trenches?. I?ve been a ?boss? for a long time yet have never lost sight of the fact that my primary roll is to provide an environment and the tools necessary for the people actually doing the work to get their jobs done and be happy doing it. I am most comfortable defining long-term strategy, the visionary work. It is of most interest to me because it is has the most impact and frankly it is the most difficult (the challenge excites me). I am constantly honing my skills and broadening my knowledge base so that I can effectively contribute with the ?hands on? work and bring sage advice when major decisions need to be made. Leaders can be found in all levels of an organization. Hopefully those ?at the top? understand that and exemplify appropriate behavior to inspire. I will now step down from my soapbox. Peace and prosperity, dm

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