Bold strokes and a powerful personality are the defining qualities of a heroic leader. But shunning the spotlight, the quiet leader works, circumspect and practical, to transform, inspire – and win.
Why read another article on leadership? Is there really anything more to say on the subject? Do we not have enough books, articles, speeches and videos about great leaders, what they do, and what we can learn from them? The problem, I believe, is that we spend too much time on the stories of men and women who have reshaped the world, led great political or moral crusades, or transformed companies or industries. Heroic leaders do teach us important lessons—about courage, high ideals and determination. Their stories help parents and teachers pass on critical values. And, without the efforts and sacrifices of these great figures, our world would be a colder and meaner place.
But our preoccupation with heroes has three serious drawbacks. First, it distorts our understanding of leadership by telling us to think in terms of a pyramid. At the top are heroes and stars; at the bottom are shirkers, free riders, and worse. But where does this leave everyone else? Most people, most of the time, aren’t saving the world or exploiting it. They are living their lives and trying to take care of the people around them. The same is true in organizations: Most of the attention goes to the movers and shakers, the hard chargers, the stars who lead turnarounds or make their numbers no matter what. But what about everyone else? Are they just cogs in the wheel? Is the world really divided into inspiring Supermen and feckless Clark Kents?
The second problem with the heroic view of leadership is that it ignores everyday right-versus-right problems. The common portrayal of great leaders shows them confronting great challenges. They know what is right and do it, despite the risks and costs. But what about the situations, all too common in organizations today, in which one serious responsibility conflicts with another?
Suppose, for example, that your company is about to lay off 10 people. You know who’s on the list, and you’ve been asked to keep the layoff plans confidential for a few more weeks. One day, a friend of yours, whose name is on the list, tells you he is just about to buy the house of his dreams and he asks you what you think. What should you do? As a corporate officer, bound by a duty of confidentiality, you should say nothing. As a friend, you should tell the truth and warn him.
Everyday work life is full of right-versus-right decisions. In fact, it sometimes seems that these hard trade-offs are delegated downward from bosses to people in the middle of organizations. In these cases, it does little good to tell people to screw up their courage and do the right thing. The essence of the problem is that several right things—obligations to owners, employees, communities and one’s own values—are clashing with each other. For men and women in this predicament, tales of heroism that end with the punch line “Just do the right thing” are irritating and irrelevant.
The third problem with the heroic view is that it offers little help to people caught in the uncertainties of contemporary life. Try to recall the brief, shining moment, just three or four years ago, when so many problems seemed solved. The Cold War had ended, the New Economy was transforming work and life, managers were hiring and building, and stocks were a sure thing. In the last couple of years, however, managers have been whipsawed from boom to bust, from optimism to pessimism, from investing and experimenting to hunkering down. Grand stories of past heroics are hardly instructive for people who have to decide what to put in and cut out of next month’s budget, and don’t know which way the rollercoaster will swerve next.
Albert Schweitzer’s suggestion
So, where should we look for guidance? A surprising but powerful answer was suggested decades ago by Albert Schweitzer—a man who was, by any standard, a commanding, heroic figure. In his late 20s, Schweitzer decided to give up promising careers as a musician or a theologian. Instead, he became a doctor and spent his life working with the poor in central Africa. When he won the Nobel Peace prize in 1952, Schweitzer used the funds he received to build a facility for treating leprosy. Schweitzer changed many lives and inspired countless others. Yet, in his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought, he wrote these words about the role of great moral heroes in shaping the world:
Of all the will toward the ideal in mankind only a small part can manifest itself in public action. All the rest of this force must be content with small and obscure deeds. The sum of these, however, is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition. The latter, compared to the former, are like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean. (Schweitzer, Albert, Out of My Life and Thought, P. 74, New American Library, New York, 1963).
This is a remarkable, almost radical statement. Here is a heroic figure dismissing heroes as mere “foam” and telling us to look elsewhere—at “small and obscure” deeds—if we want to learn about making the world a better place. He is suggesting that we look away from grand figures, extreme situation and moments of high historical drama, and pay close attention to how thoughtful, practical men and women resolve the challenges of everyday life.
For the last four years, I have been studying men and women who lead quietly. I gathered more than 150 case studies describing how people in the middle of organizations successfully addressed everyday problems. By doing this, I learned a lot about who quiet leaders are and how they work.
A profile of quiet leaders
The men and women I studied were realists and pragmatists. They didn’t kid themselves about the difficulties and uncertainties they often face. Nor did they see themselves as miniature versions of great leaders of the past. They recognized that they were often isolated and had little power, that they were not leading armies or social movements, and that, all too often, they were more like the bug than the windshield.
Instead of taking forceful, direct action, these quiet leaders worked behind the scenes—quietly, carefully and patiently. They didn’t ignore their self-interest, and they understood that martyrdom is a once-in-a-lifetime activity. Their overriding aim was to address serious problems and live by their values, but without damaging their careers and reputations.
Quiet leaders also recognized the full complexity and uncertainty that govern so much of life and work today. They didn’t assume “the right thing” was usually clear, that they knew just what it was, and that leadership was largely a matter of doing the right thing.
Quiet leaders did understand that some situations call for direct, forceful, courageous action. But they saw these cases as the exception, not the rule. Heroism, in their view, was a last resort, not the first choice or the standard model. They understood why navy flyers, the brave men and women who land streaking jets on the relatively tiny decks of aircraft carriers, are told in training that “there are no old, bold pilots.” In other words, preparation, caution, care, and attention to detail are usually the best approach to important, demanding challenges.
The work of quiet leaders
What do quiet leaders do? My research indicates that they rely heavily on five basic guidelines.
Don’t Kid Yourself. Quiet leaders don’t kid themselves about how far they can see down the road in front of them—or about how much they can control. Their view of how the world works was captured in a Breton fisherman’s prayer, “Oh Lord, the sea is so vast and my boat is so small.”
As quiet leaders try to navigate inside their organizations, they keep their minds open to the full and fertile range of things that can and do happen in organizations. They realize that, sometimes, they are up against adversaries who don’t fight fair; then they are cautious and watch their backs. They also realize that sometimes things will unexpectedly break their way, so they are ready to grab opportunities. And quiet leaders also understand that, quite often, things turn out much different from what they or anyone expects, and then they are ready to move flexibly and rapidly.
Quiet leaders see the world as a kaleidoscope, rather than a fixed target or a well-mapped terrain. In most organizations, most of the time, self-interest, short-sightedness, and chicanery are tumbling together with shards of loyalty, commitment, perseverance and integrity. The churning is continuous—fuelled by the dynamism of the modern economy, the restlessness and vibrancy of contemporary life, and the age-old drivers of human nature.
This is why quiet leaders reject cynicism—they see it as too simplistic. Dark-tinted glasses distort reality just as badly as rose-tinted ones. In fact, cynics are often quite naive—they actually believe they can predict human behaviour, almost mechanically, by assuming that people will act on the basis of narrow, self-interested and generally low motives. In contrast, realists expect all sorts of things to happen—good and bad, virtuous and vicious, inspiring and dismaying. They make plenty of room for the unexpected.
Have Some Skin in the Game. Quiet leaders are tenacious people, and the reason for that is surprising. The heroic view of leadership presents men and women with noble ideals and pure motives. But the motives of quiet leaders are decidedly mixed. In the cases I examined, quiet leaders were usually well aware of their own self-interest, and they worked hard to protect their reputations and careers. Heroic self-sacrifice held little appeal for them. They followed, in effect, the guidance of Hillel the Elder, the ancient Hebrew scholar and sage, who asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I?”
One individual I studied—call him Terry—worked as a sales rep for a large drug company. The firm had a strong code of ethics and its executives made frequent statements about corporate responsibility. Hence, Terry was surprised to discover that his company was engaged in an extensive, subterranean effort to sell one of its drugs for a use that the Food and Drug Administration had not approved—a clear violation of FDA regulations. For a while, Terry went along with this scheme, but eventually he had misgivings. So Terry told the doctors he handled that the drug had not been approved for certain uses, and he told his boss and some of the other reps that he had done this.
Looking back on the episode, Terry was candid about his motives. He didn’t want any patients to suffer because he had pushed an unapproved drug and he didn’t want to get in trouble—if the FDA clamped down on the practice or if his company needed a scapegoat. Terry’s motives were clearly mixed. He was trying to help others and also trying to help himself. If he didn’t have this powerful, dual motive, he might not have acted as soon or as courageously as he did. What really mattered in his case, as in so many others, was the strength of his motives, not their purity.
Making changes, even small ones, in a recalcitrant world is a hard, demanding task. It is typically a marathon, run on long, lonely roads, rather than a thrilling sprint in front of a cheering crowd. Typically, the men and women who stay the course do so because they have some skin in the game. The big engines of self-interest are churning inside them.
Some people do astonishing things out of unalloyed altruism—think of firefighters running into a burning building—and we call these people heroes and saints. But the rest of us are typically motivated by considerations that are more mixed and less noble. Quiet leaders recognize this. They don’t think that their all-too-human motives disqualify or exempt them from doing what they should. Instead, like Terry, they look for ways to channel their self-interest in ways that also serve others.
Buy Time. Back in the heyday of Internet hype, we were told we had to live and make decisions on Internet time. The guiding mantra was “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Now, looking back, it is easy to see this as the nonsense it was. In fact, the same people who told us to make decisions faster and faster were also telling us that the world was becoming more complex and less predictable. And this second observation was true—things were swirling faster and faster—but it was also the reason why decisions should not be hurried.
The quiet leaders I studied recognized the complexity and uncertainty of the problems they faced and often looked for ways to buy time. They didn’t want to win what medical schools call the SSW, that is, the award for being swift, sure and wrong. Quiet leaders recognize that time lets turbulent waters settle and clarify. It lets people discuss their situations with others and think things through on their own. Time gives people a chance to assess their real obligations and gives sound instincts a chance to emerge. It lets them observe and learn, look for patterns, understand some of the many, subtle ways in which individuals and events interact, and look for small, subtle opportunities in the flow of events.
So quiet leaders buy time in a variety of ways. Sometimes they succeed in making the case for a delay. But when they can’t, they do things that hardly resemble charge-the-hill leadership. Sometimes they rely on minor subterfuges—“I didn’t get your message,” “I can’t meet until next week because I’m with clients”—and, in other cases, they use standard organizational games to secure the time they need.
For example, one newly minted bank manager did not want to follow her boss’s instructions to start laying off personnel and cutting costs. She felt everyone deserved a last chance and believed there were a couple of employees who could make real contributions if they had the right leadership. Hence, she stalled—by consulting the human resources department, having lawyers look carefully at the legality of firing, by cutting some other costs and temporarily placating her boss. These tactics gave her the time she needed, and she saved several imperiled jobs.
Good managers don’t want to work in organizations where game playing is standard operational procedure and quiet leaders don’t use stalling tactics casually or routinely. But they are willing to get their hands dirty and buy time when it’s the best or only way to do what they believe is right.
Drill Down. How do quiet leaders use the time they buy? They use it to attack the uncertainties and complexities that surround them.
Notice something striking about most of the well-known stories of heroic leadership—the absence of technical complexities. The Alamo was defended by a handful of men using simple weapons; President Lincoln didn’t have an army of lawyers vet the Emancipation Proclamation; and Ann Sullivan didn’t have to seek third-party reimbursement before working with Helen Keller. The inspiring stories of heroic men and women are usually unencumbered by the technical complexities that permeate so much of life and work today. Ninety per cent of all the scientists and engineers who have ever lived and worked are now living and working right now and their number is doubling every few years. The same is true for lawyers, accountants and other specialists.
Hence, when quiet leaders manage to buy some time, they use it to drill down into the full complexities of the problem in front of them. They get as much advice as they can from people who have confronted similar problems. They examine and re-examine their problem, looking for new angles. They look beyond the technical aspects of the problems, to its politics. And, whenever possible, they try to learn by doing – and moving carefully. Instead of charging ahead, their inclination is to nudge, test and escalate their efforts gradually in whatever direction seems to make the most sense. Terry, the drug rep, spent several weeks figuring out what to do, and the new bank manager spent weeks learning about his staff and how to motivate them.
Bend the Rules and Look for Compromises. We don’t associate compromises with leadership. If anything, the heroic view teaches us that real leaders take courageous stands and defend their principles to the end. And bending the rules sounds too much like the tactics that destroyed Enron.
Quiet leaders understand all this, but they also understand something else: Responsible behaviour in some difficult situations requires a little wiggle room. Recall the case of the boss whose good friend was about to buy a big house and lose his job. The easy, pseudo-responsible solution to the problem would be to take a stand on principle—by saying nothing in order to protect corporate confidentiality or by being loyal to the friend and telling him what was going to happen. The more difficult and responsible approach is to bend the rules a little—by saying something like, “I’d be a little careful, given the lousy earnings lately” or “Our competition has been laying people off and I’d be too nervous to make a big financial commitment right now.” This approach isn’t perfect, but like so many tough, daily decisions in the middle of organizations, it is a practical way of making good on conflicting responsibilities.
There are no small things
Compromises like this are hardly heroic. Nor was Terry’s effort to stop selling unapproved drugs, or the bank manager’s efforts to save a couple of jobs. Most of what quiet leaders do is unseen, subtle and often unrewarded. Quiet leaders spend much of their time on small things, but they work very hard to get these small things right.
Sometimes small efforts are snowballs that roll down hills and gather force. Sometimes, in situations poised on the knife’s edge, they tip things in the right directions. Sometimes ostensibly small acts influence other people months or even years later—by taking root in their experience, gestating and shaping their development. And, even when larger consequences do not result from small acts, they matter simply because they are the right thing to do. As Bruce Barton, a remarkable business executive who founded a major ad agency, served in Congress and wrote widely about religion, observed, “Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things—a chance word, a tap on the shoulder, or a penny dropped on a newsstand—I am tempted to think there are no little things.”
But what do these small, unglamorous, everyday efforts add up to? The answer is that they are almost everything. The vast majority of difficult, important human problems—both inside and outside organizations—are not solved by a swift, decisive stroke from someone at the top. What usually matters are careful, thoughtful, practical efforts by people working far from the limelight. In short, quiet leadership is what moves and changes the world.