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Quiet leadership - is it time to reconsider the type of leaders we need for the next decade?

"All I'm trying to do is leave a trace on the beach." - quoted in Leading Quietly, Joseph Badaracco

How many of us have worked in organisations seemingly unable or unwilling to change? Despite the numerous volumes written about organisational change and leadership, the actual practice of leading change in an organisation is frequently done poorly and with little success. While the oft-cited figure of 70% comes from misquoting the research, the fact remains that change is difficult with a majority of change projects not achieving their desired results. It makes me wonder if we're asking the wrong questions about leadership and organisational transformation?

I recently read two books that helped solidify this perspective and provided an alternative viewpoint on what enables successful change.

Joseph Badaracco articulates the importance of focusing on a different type of leadership extremely well in his book, Leading Quietly. Leading Quietly does not claim to provide a leadership theory. Rather, it encourages us to reconsider our notions of heroic leadership and moderate our focus on transformational leaders. It is not that Joseph Baradacco does not believe in transformational leadership. He recognises that most leaders in organisations cannot be transformative. It's low-key and behind-the-scenes leaderships, intending to propel the organisation forward rather than overhaul it, making the biggest difference in how organisations work and change.

This emphasis on everyday leadership is critical. It is significant because the narrative of leadership and change is becoming increasingly enamoured with the "celebrity" leader. These leaders are motivational, capable of processing large amounts of information in real-time and firmly grasping details. We see this in sports, as teams become more interested in famous coaches and star athletes, as Sam Walker points out in The Captain Class. However, focusing on celebrities as a solution limits our ability to build organisations capable of making the small daily changes needed to adapt to our changing world. Quiet leadership holds organisations together and allows them to change.

I came away from these two books convinced that we need to do more to recognise the quiet leader to create resilient 21st-century organisations. Concepts such as "team of teams" and dynamic organisational structures can only work if there is quiet leadership at all levels of an organisation. To build the capabilities of quiet leadership, businesses must recognise and reward it.

What, then, are the qualities that distinguish a quiet leader? The core themes in Joseph Badaracco's and Sam Walker's books are strikingly similar.

First, they note that quiet leaders are modest and willing to work to benefit the team or organisation. Sam Walker refers to the leaders as "water carriers" - the willingness to downplay one's abilities. According to Joseph Badaracco, these leaders are modest because they "understand that they can't change everything and that there are a lot of different forces at work, not all of which can be controlled."

Second, they can connect people. Not necessarily through flashy communication or attention-seeking, but rather through how they communicate, gather information, and demonstrate restraint. According to Sam Walker, this is "the ability to communicate and convey our intent, to weave people together, but not necessarily to be outwardly communicative or attention-seeking." According to Joseph Badaracco, restraint is the "ability to control their activities and the questions they ask, listening before you speak, and gathering information."

Third, quiet leaders are resilient and purpose-driven. They believe in the organisation and "pursue and hold on to their goal." In sports terms, these leaders exemplified courage by taking on challenges and speaking out when necessary, but always for the greater good. These leaders take actions with a singular focus on winning.

Aside from these three characteristics of quiet leaders, Sam Walker and Joseph Badaracco identify three "tactical" activities these leaders engage in daily.

  1. They do not fool themselves. Quiet leaders recognise that they are part of the solution and realise that they may not be the best player on the team and are thus willing to pass rather than shoot.

  2. They create political capital by establishing relationships and credibility across organisations and teams, allowing them to call out inappropriate behaviour and take appropriate action when necessary.

  3. They are willing to deviate from the rules or bend them to achieve their aims. These leaders understand that sometimes you have to bend the rules to serve your team.

I'd planned to end this post with a rallying cry for more quiet leaders. But, as I've thought about it, I'm not sure that's the best focus. There are large and small organisations developing strong leadership cultures, and some organisations are having difficulty making the transition. Those struggling to adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Covid, and the climate emergency should consider the types of leadership behaviours they encourage and value. The next time you promote or hire a leadership role, ask yourself, what kind of leader you need? There is a place for 'celebrity' leadership; pursuing a specific agenda or trying to disrupt an organisation. There is also an important place for quiet leadership, for promoting people who are the glue in an organisation and whose attributes make those around them better.


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