Shhhh. Quiet Leadership: The High-Performance Secret

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 his or 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—under the heading “quiet leadership”—may be ultimately more effective at achieving sustained high performance in organizations of all kinds.

While that may be good news for those of us who are not natural media stars, don’t be misled: Quiet leadership is a challenging management approach that requires a keen understanding of your business and the people in it to achieve its promise.

For starters, quiet leadership isn’t clearly defined. Certainly a bedrock of quiet leadership is leading by example, of eliciting the behavior you want by demonstrating it, rather than just telling others to do it. But a deeper understanding of what it means to be “quiet leader” is emerging as management researchers and business coaches delve into just why it is that certain types of leaders tend to produce better results, in more varied conditions, over longer periods of time. And quiet leadership isn’t just for the person at the top, but applies across the spectrum, from the leader to all levels of middle-management, from solo entrepreneurs and their team of subcontractors to small business owners with a small staff.

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 with a willingness to accept responsibility for failure and to pass along the credit for success to his or 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:

Don’t kid yourself. Be realistic about what you know—and don’t know—of the situation you face. Accept that you may have to act with uncertain knowledge.

Trust mixed motives. Recognize that people, including yourself, 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 rarest—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, and by getting to know each member of a team well enough to be able to craft work assignments to best suit where they are and where they’re going.

Yet it’s clear that quiet leadership is not so much about any particular management style as it is an attitude toward work and people—and life. Keeping your ego in check certainly seems to be a prerequisite, as is giving up your ambitions for being on the cover of Fortune.

As Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management studies at McGill University, commented in a recent article on quiet leadership, “Maybe really good management is boring.”

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