The Anything-but Unremarkable Lessons of the Quiet Leader

I’m quite a noisy, bouncy person.  I can also be loud and bossy, asserting strongly a principle or point of view.  Of course I know that and I try hard to be balanced and make sure I listen carefully and attentively, but I can’t help being attracted to other noisy bouncy people.

I did a leadership programme (the Kings Fund Johnson & Johnson Programme – I was so lucky) a long long time ago.  I loved it.  One of the things we did was to look at ourselves and compare ourselves to others and to think about the impact that we had.  It was great fun.  We did our Myers-Briggs assessment and then all split into our respective groups and looked at ‘the others’.  Of course I was in the noisy bouncy group and we had great fun unpicking our preferences and trying to understand each other.  We had the task of describing an empty bottle of wine; I saw parties and laughter, others (not so bouncy and loud) a green bottle.  What I learnt was that differences are a strength and we should not be afraid to work with people different from ourselves – diversity is fun.

A conversation recently with someone on Twitter about a leadership programme reminded me of the story above. I can almost feel myself in the room back all those years ago.  The loud bouncy people were in the majority.  Those more reserved in smaller groups, with a lower volume buzz.

I work with lots of different people.  In an informatics environment there are maybe less energetic, loud and bouncy people.  I think I’m sometimes treated like the enthusiastic Labrador; when I first started working there I felt terrible.  The office is a large open plan one.  Studious silence reigns, mainly men – how was I to survive?  In the first few weeks I was nearly exploding with the need to talk!

What happened was that I discovered that I work with some remarkable people.

The title of this blog is from a paper from the Ivey Business Journal by Joseph Badaracco.   I was reminded recently that’s its too easy to think that outspoken people are they only ones who can lead; phrases like ‘Step up to the plate’ and ‘Lead from the front’ imply a type of visible heroic leadership that is well documented.  So what about quiet leaders?

Badaracco says that we spend too much time on the heroes.  He isn’t dismissing the need for courage and high ideals but he thinks we are preoccupied with those leaders who display these characteristics and we assume no one else is pulling their weight, that if the ‘movers and shakers’ are not making a noise then nothing is happening.

Badaracco makes a great case for dilemmas where people need to make right vs. right decisions.  Most heroic leaders are seen facing ‘great challenges’ but what about the day to day dilemmas people face, about the ‘small and obscure’ deeds.

Quiet leaders, according to Badaracco rely on 5 basic guidelines:

1 Don’t kid yourself

Quiet leaders are realistic and have open minds to the complex world around them.  Unlike heroic leaders they are not focused on a single task but can see the complexity around them

2 Some skin in the game

Quiet leaders recognise that they have ‘skin in the game’ and can see how their own self interest can be channeled to help others.

3 Buy-time

Quiet leaders recognise the complexity and uncertainty of the problems they face and often buying-time is a useful approach.

4 Drill-down

They use the time they buy to try to tackle the uncertainties around them, they consult, they listen and learn about what needs to be done.

5 Bend the rules and look for compromises

In contrast to heroic leadership, where leaders take the ‘last stand’ to defend principles,  quiet leaders are more pragmatic using their understanding if the complex landscape to make complex decisions about what to do.

I would commend the article to you.  In the current landscape of the NHS where we need stability as much as change I value those of us who are quiet leaders and vow to respect and value them as part of the teams I work with.  In the new NHS we need heroic leaders but equally we need remarkable quiet leaders.

Badaracco JL., (2002) The Anything-but Unrtemarkable Lessons of the Quiet Leader Ivey Business Journal May/June 2002

14 thoughts on “The Anything-but Unremarkable Lessons of the Quiet Leader

  1. Hi Annie, loved this blog as I have a strong interest in leadership. The greatest leader I have ever worked with has the traits you describe, she is quietly assertive, quietly confident, quietly humble and quietly leads others to places they never dreamed of going. Her name is Sue Henry and I had the honour of being her manager once. She taught me so much! I will read the article 🙂

  2. I’m very much a quiet leader and after think that I should be louder and more gregarious. I get good results through being myself though and so don’t want to change. The feedback I get from the team is very positive.

  3. I’m sure you do get great feedback. I value my friends and colleagues who are just like you and have high respect for them. Its about diversity for me, we need many differnt types of people to work in this complex world. So you don’t need to change – just rejoice in the feedback you get from your team. X

  4. Another great and insightful blog Annie. I am in the bouncy camp too but know some fab quiet leaders.

  5. It is only through fully recognising the diversity of skills whether leadership or otherwise that we achieve the full potential of the teams we work in. Heroic leaders will often falter when the task is mundane; seeking a riskier, more glory filled path. However, in a time of crisis, they are exactly the person we need. Our quiet leader is just as important, they get us efficiently through each day, allowing us to express our full potential to get the job done; to grow as individuals and as a team and to get to the bottom of some of the complex challenges ahead of us.
    Once again a very though provoking blog Coops! Thanks :0)

  6. Excellent blog, Annie. Far better the quiet, reflective leader, listening, taking in what is happening, being approachable… than the one sounding off about all the wrong things! Energy is important. Reflection is important. Like everything, leadership is not “one size fits all” but the right pperson, with the right values – and real compassion for both their staff and the people they serve. You might enjoy Susan Cain’s book: ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. Also anything by a very powerful “quiet leader” Andy Bradley: 🙂

  7. Hi Annie. Thank you for this. I am fascinated by introversion (and have written about it in my blog too!). I am a proud introvert and have come to value introversion in what I perceive is a world where extroversion is more valued. The Myers Briggs learning (especially in groups) is a fantastic way to understand self and others in relation to leadership – I also did a Kings Fund course where this was included. Now it means that I appreciate my extrovert colleagues even more through this learning and the work I have done since.
    Am enjoying your blog very much and taking tips from you for my own so that I can create some discussion in the way that you have! Ruth

  8. Annie thanks for this.I really enjoyed reading this and it reminded me of a job I had (which I loved) years ago training first line managers. We used Myers-Briggs questionnaires to enable these would be managers to gain some insight into their own behaviour. You are right in that it seems that the accepted norm for leadership style needed to be outgoing, visionary and equal measure of task and people. The thing that really struck me however would be how many people would ask what their own manager’s style was or the senior executive style is. It did seem that many younger people were still forming their leadership identity and needing some identi-kit recipe to follow. Over the years I have understood more and more that we need different personal leadership styles to be in existence, also for people to have a clear idea of their own strengths of leadership and help use this in the team/network they are with. We need all people to lead in a network leadership way. The days of the leader as torch bearer can then be resigned to the history books?

  9. A brilliant read, thanks – as part of the quiet atmosphere I can recognise part of myself in this! Ps hope you keep bouncing and being noisy!!

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