This is an archived blog post from Green Alder Coaching
This blog is not about debating what leadership is or is not and what is right and wrong. It is about introducing some overlooked qualities and ways of ‘being’ as a leader.
There is such a plethora of information out there already: books, journals, online courses, and business schools to name a few, all claiming to know the answers, often making many assumptions and a bias to leadership as something that is individualistic and can be taught to the special few—is a leader born or made? There are a multitude of leadership models, so which one is the right one?
Leadership is confusing! Leadership can be approached and defined in more than one way: as a fixed set of personality traits, as variable and changing sets of behaviours, as individual or collective phenomena, as localised or distributed, and so on. The critical research is lacking and inconclusive to define and understand the complexity of what leadership actually is. Many assumptions have been—and continue to be —made and adopted. By its very dominance in society, there are no immediate signs that ‘leadership’ is going away. We seem to need it.
Leadership is treated as a catch-all and a panacea. It is made to stand for all the qualities that are in a top team or responsible post holder—an individualistic charismatic ‘heroic’ bias. But the picture of a late twentieth-century business leader is one of personality devoid of global ethics and a global community: someone who is paid a great deal of money to advance the interests of a limited number of major shareholders, including himself or herself in a multinational structure. A culture that emphasises individualism, aggression, ruthless behaviour, risk-taking, competitiveness, and the importance of short-term results, whilst paying lip service to the moral dimension of business (e.g. Enron).
But, what is leadership without ‘fellowship’, without the context of an organisation, without governance and clear boundaries, and without positive outcomes? There is an increasing tendency to assume and assert that leadership is the answer to a whole array of intractable problems, especially in light of organisations having to respond to increasing uncertainty, instability, deregulation, and competitiveness. Perhaps people are leaders only at those times when, and for as long as they are performing a leadership role.
What we do know is that cracks are showing and there is a definite ‘crisis of leadership’. So, we have to try and negotiate this stormy sea, learn from the mistakes, and celebrate the successes—one size of leadership definitely does not fit all! We need to unveil the assumptions we make around leadership, ask more questions, and start again.
I could continue in much more detail, but this blog is a celebration of the less obvious traits and leadership approaches that are not universally adopted or seen as ‘sexy’ in our culture, but they do matter. Research may leave many questions unanswered, but introversion, sensitive person, and quiet leadership are the yin to the dominant yang of our current extroverted personality-driven business world. Re-balancing and introducing many different leadership styles, at different levels within work, is perhaps a step in the right direction. Too many introverts and quiet people are overlooked and go unnoticed; but their style can contribute to an authentic, ethical, and compassionate global workplace.
This blog is not suggesting that all leaders should be quiet, sensitive, or introverted leaders, but more about what could be adopted more often than usual – the tortoise as well as the hare!
How are introverts different?
It’s a shame how introverted people have historically been associated with negativity within our Extroverted Ideal culture when in fact, having different traits is a good thing. To have a celebrated mixture of both in the workplace is both balancing and essential. We all exist on a continuum of introversion to extroversion—but are usually closer to one pole than the other.
It is liberating to realise that introversion is perfectly normal and is merely one side of a necessary duality on a continuum of human nature. Unfortunately, many introverts feel ‘maligned’ for being themselves in the workplace and are at risk of being discounted and unseen or assumed to be lacking in some way or willfully uncooperative often leading to withdrawal and negative career effects. Or worse still, they are forced to be something they are not, against their truest nature—actors.
So, the sooner introverts and the rest of the world realise their strengths, they can leverage them to succeed in an extroverted professional world, staying true to their authentic self—the tortoise and the hare.
It is understood that people are predisposed to a certain tendency by nature and nurture. Some tendencies—not mutual exclusivity—of introverts include:
Enjoy solitude over people (in order to recharge because large amounts of social interaction can be draining)
Attuned to tasks more than social relationships.
Deliberate and analytical decision-maker.
Needing time to think before responding (so can appear slower to comment in a conversation)
Does not seek attention without good reason.
Engages fully with concepts and ideas.
Expresses written concepts well.
Good at fact-finding and research.
Give honest endorsements.
Independent; neither needs nor wants oversight and constant affirmation.
Keenly aware of nuances of behaviour and intonation.
Maintains confidence and the confidentiality of client and company information.
Reserved demeanor in professional situations.
Respectful of others’ territory.
Succeeds by diligence and hard work, not political games.
Quiet leadership is about leaders who are quiet, empathic, authentic, patient thoughtful, reserved, humble, mild-mannered, self-effacing, and understated—they ooze character. There are many of them through whom countless and often unseen efforts contribute to the success of organisations. They tend to do what’s right for their organisation, for the people around them, and themselves inconspicuously and without casualties—all in the same boat.
Quiet leaders do not like to be the center of attention—more ‘plow’ horse than a ‘show’ horse. Using tenacity, they realise leadership is a long process, rather than dramatic short-term events, and demonstrate restraint from rushing into decisions or actions when time is needed to wait for a situation to clarify. They are simply secure in themselves without having a huge ego. They have a friendly, down-to-earth practicality about themselves. This is important because today’s employees demand personal relationships with leaders.
They are passionate about their work, but do not let passion rule them. They are not out to change the world but understand that most things worth doing are neither grand nor permanent, they are great at doing the ordinary things—modesty is their hallmark, mixed in with strong motives (some altruistic and some self-regarding). Their inspiration is calmer, almost spiritual in nature.
Generation X and Y who enter the workforce are better educated and paid to think. When highly motivated, they want leaders who help them shine and who help them fulfill their potential in work. They want leaders who make it easy for them to ask questions, suggest ideas, and convey information. Quiet leaders know that the best way to gain compliance is to guide employees to discover for themselves the solutions to problems and encourage them to reflect more. Being overly directive can undermine the employee’s self-worth and fan flames of resentment.
By giving little advice and asking broad Socratic questions, they do not go straight to the source of the problem but allow people to stretch their thinking about dilemmas, inspiring them and supporting them to take action— generating many ideas without being attached to anyone.
Quiet leaders are good listeners. They know what they don’t know. Listening helps leaders better understand their employees and business by continually listening for potential, believing in employees, and measuring and monitoring how people are— often nurturing and allowing shy or reluctant speakers to open up. They drill down deeply and methodically into the complexities of problems and emerge with ways of seeing things that the organisation never anticipated.
Quiet leaders know that criticism does not help performance. They are persuasive by appealing to the better side of a person. They watch out for how people are challenging themselves, growing, learning, and developing. Transforming performance requires providing continuous positive feedback, in many forms, over time and the need to validate, confirm, encourage, support, and believe in people’s potential.
Quiet leaders seek advice to resolve problems. They gather perspectives from a wide variety of sources and rethink and believe lessons can be learned from both horizontal and vertical chains of command. While gathering perspectives, quiet leaders put themselves in the shoes of others they are speaking with. They share their humanity while focusing on the needs of others. They also are sensitive in choosing words, so that they are not off-putting. Quiet leaders know how to balance the needs of staff and customers with their own goals, and to nurture a shared vision. They don’t look for the right answer, they concentrate on finding the right ways to eventually get sound workable answers.
In addition, they accept their own faults and do not cover up shortcomings. They apologise for lapses in judgment and acknowledge when they make mistakes and they cultivate a culture that allows employees to do the same. This creates a supportive work environment where everyone can speak comfortably without feeling threatened. They recognise all sorts of things can happen. Therefore, they make ample room for ways in which people or events can surprise, dismay and astonish. The quiet leader believes they alone are not smart enough to answer difficult questions solely by thinking about them, so they drill down and gather facts from others.
The success and strengths of quiet leaders are due to mixed and complicated motives; if their motives were not mixed, they would act out of altruism and self-sacrifice, thereby reducing their effectiveness. They navigate a middle ground—they choose battles, create pockets of learning, and create small wins. They rock the organisational boat without falling out. They are less likely to miss nuances, pass complications, run toward mirages, and fall into traps. When faced with complex ethical dilemmas they take the rules seriously and look imaginatively for ways to follow the spirit of the rules while creatively bending them— but to not flagrantly violate them. Quiet leaders nudge, test, and escalate gradually and would rather not risk their careers or reputation.
They believe leadership depends on learning, and learning involves taking small steps—subtlety and restraint are hallmarks of quiet leadership. They are cautious and committed catalysts who keep going and slowly make a difference—the tortoise and not the hare. They try to buy time in order to craft compromises and make decisions because they assume problems have several levels of complexity.
Although from the outside this may seem a slow and ponderous way to lead, it may be the best way to improve organisations whilst the ego-driven charismatic, fast-thinking leaders cause absolute chaos and fear around us. Quiet leaders can help today’s multifaceted and complex organisations because rather than react to problems, they respond to them and acknowledge the whole situation—encompassing the nuances and complexities of situations rather than the first thing that comes to mind.
It is not difficult to take even a cursory glance at the tendencies of the more introverted or sensitive (see previous blog) individuals and notice that they have many of the hallmarks of a quiet leader and show many similarities and potential for growth and development. Surely the solitary bees can pollinate and regenerate an organisation? Organisations may not even realise they already have potentially great leaders, at all levels, amongst them. Because quiet leaders exist and operate out of the limelight it is important for organisations to recognize, acknowledge and promote successful quiet, introverted or sensitive people. In doing so, they will benefit from a different and valuable kind of leader.
What do you think?
References: The Introverts Guide to professional —how to let your quiet competence be your career advantage by Joyce Shelleman, Ph.D.(2012). Leadership in Organisations: Current issues and Key Trends edited by John Storey.(2011). Quietleadership.blogspot Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing by Joseph Badaracco. (2002).