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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.

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