The conventional image of a business leader is one we see all around us—the commanding, visionary person who takes charge in a time of crisis or transition and leads her company to victory over daunting odds. The tales of these “celebrity CEOs” and their successes make great reading—as does their failures.
Yet, for several years, a slowly growing body of knowledge and experience has begun to suggest that another approach. The style known as “quiet leadership” may ultimately be more effective at achieving sustained high performance in organizations the traditional styles of leadership.
While that may be good news for those of us who are not natural media stars or extroverts, don’t be misled. Quiet leadership is a challenging management approach that requires a keen understanding of your business and the people necessary to achieve its promise.
Leading by example is one of the hallmarks of Quiet Leadership. It is more powerful to elicit the behavior you want by demonstrating it, rather than just telling others to do it. “Walk the talk” could be considered a key mantra for modeling ideal behavior. But a deeper understanding of what it means to be a “quiet leader” is emerging as management researchers and business coaches explore why certain types of leaders tend to produce better and sustainable results. Quiet leadership can be demonstrated at all leadership levels, not just in the executive boardroom.
Author Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, first documented that transforming a mediocre company into a stellar performer seemed to require a leader who was the polar opposite of the “celebrity CEO” archetype. This type of leader combines tremendous personal determination to do what it takes to achieve success for the organization. This leader is willing to accept responsibility for failure as well as give credit for success to her team.
In his bestselling book Leading Quietly, Harvard professor Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. identified key behaviors that successful quiet leaders seem to follow to get results. He distilled these into seven recommendations, among them:
• Do not be fooled. Be realistic about what you know and don’t know about the situation you face. Accept that you may have to act with uncertain knowledge.
• Trust mixed motives. Recognize that people, including you, bring a blend of motivations to their jobs—public-spirited and self-interested. Work with this instead of fighting it.
Daniel Goleman’s recent book, Primal Leadership, suggests that a coaching style of leadership may best describe the rare—and most essential—qualities of the quiet leader. “The coaching style is the least-used tool in the leader’s toolkit,” says Goleman, “probably because it doesn’t look like leadership.”
Like a coach, a quiet leader can achieve breakthroughs by asking guided questions rather than giving orders or advice. An exceptional leader takes the time to get to know each member of a team and understands their needs and style. This enables her to customize the appropriate projects and development plans that addresses the employees needs.
Quiet Leadership is not so much about any particular management style as it is an attitude toward work and people—and life. It is important to keep your ego in check and manage your ambitions. Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, also highlights that leaders who are introverts can also have a significant impact to organizations. Companies are starting to acknowledge the need to expand their definition of diversity to include leadership styles as well.