Leadership. Whether we’re referring to that of leader in the workplace or broader community, perhaps too much emphasis is placed on those charismatic or heroic leaders; and not enough on those who lead quietly—sometimes at the top; sometimes behind the scenes or in the trenches. Maybe it’s time quiet leadership had the spotlight.
Leadership: My Forest Gump-type introduction
I had kind of a Forest Gump childhood, often finding myself in scenarios that became part of recorded history; although certainly not to my credit. I just had the good fortune to be a “fly on the wall” so to speak.
I remember vividly the afternoon in March, 1965, when as a seventh grade student at Baldwin Junior High in Montgomery, Alabama, I watched from the fourth-story window as Martin Luther King led a march of hundreds by our school—a parade of citizens, entertainment celebrities, national organizations, and religious delegations.
I was young, and initially had mixed feelings about the event. I had been to a birthday party the week before for a classmate, the son of George Wallace, then Alabama governor, vehemently opposed to the march. My math teacher was enraged. I’ll never forget her hateful words, “I wish a strangling rain would come down and get them all.” It seemed like a storm brewing that I didn’t want to be part of. I figured that only an almost-legendary leader like Dr. King could pull off such a feat.
But then it hit me. Parents were told they could keep their children home that day in case of possible violence; less than 50 out of more than a thousand students attended that day; I was one of them. My parents felt that this was a history-altering event and more importantly, the right thing to do. “We are going to be cautious but visible. We will write to the newspaper; support at the grassroot level,” they told me. Just a few months later, the voting-rights bill became law. This was my first taste of quiet leadership influencing significant outcomes. My parents were not alone. Others piloted, largely unnoticed. Since then, I’ve always observed with immense curiosity those who are leading; but you sometimes have to pay close attention to get it.
Leadership: Everyday leaders
Joseph Badaracco, Jr., author of Leading quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing, points out that although heroic leaders model important behaviors, such as courage and high ideals, our preoccupation with the high-profile leaders takes attention away from the majority of people who solve problems and model leadership behavior every day. These leaders tend to work quietly and in the background, making decisions based on their values.
Leadership: Hardwired to be quiet is okay
In her book, The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength, Frances B. Kahnweiler says that we often mistype introverted leaders as being shy or even fearful. She argues that they are more often hardwired to process information internally and exit calm natures. She describes 5 key traits of quiet leaders:
- They think first and talk later. They listen to others; then reflect; then respond.
- They focus on depth, not superficiality. They are likely to dig into issues and ideas; and to have meaningful conversations.
- They radiate composure. In crisis, they project a reassuring confidence and soothe those around them.
- They often like to write rather than talk. It helps them articulate their spoken words.
- They delight in solitude which helps them energize and bring new clarity to the next challenge or chapter.
Leadership: Back to Montgomery
Ten years before watching the protesters march down my junior high’s block, Rosa Parks said, “I’m not sitting in the back of the bus.” She had been to some civil rights training programs. But she’d actually stopped riding the bus; and got on this particular time by accident. Once she was arrested, those concerned about civil rights asked themselves and discussed, “Is this the time to take action and challenge segregated busing?” So although Rosa certainly had courage and led, there were leaders whose names we will never know. They led in preparation; they led during the scary times. They led in follow-up.
I find solace in the thought that there are quiet leaders. We don’t read about them in Time or hear about them on the evening news. But they are there. Softly rallying people to achieve common goals. They are exceptional in their own way. And yes, behind the scenes, the front lines, all the way to the very top, there are leaders who are principled, brave, caring and quiet.
Are you a quiet leader? Have you been inspired by one? I’d love to hear!