The Quiet Leader—and How to Be One

Think of a business leader and who comes to mind? A brash type like Jack Welch? But real leaders solve tough problems in all kinds of ways, and often quietly, says Harvard Business School's Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr.
by Martha Lagace

It sounds almost paradoxical. A quiet leader? Yet quiet leaders—managers who apply modesty, restraint, and tenacity to solve particularly difficult problems—are more common than we think, says Harvard Business School professor Joseph L. Badaracco.

In his new book Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing (HBS Press, 2002), he describes what quiet leaders do and how they make their workplace, and their world, a better place. Badaracco recently sat down with HBS Working Knowledge Senior Editor Martha Lagace to talk about quiet leaders.

Lagace: You write that one inspiration for your new book was the unusual course you've been teaching for MBA students on moral leadership in organizations. What is a quiet leader? Is quiet leadership a topic you had been thinking about prior to the MBA course?

Badaracco: I don't think I really started thinking about it until just a few years ago. There were two things that prompted me to do so. One is that I had written a book called Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right (HBS Press, 1997) which is about big deal, high-stake, traumatic decisions. And there was a natural question: "Is this all there is to writing about difficult ethical decisions?" Or put differently, what happens in between the big decisions—which don't come along very often? For some people they come along very, very infrequently. Does this mean these people are on vacation the rest of the time?

So that was one question that was in my mind. In the course, so many of the people in the works of fiction we read—who aspire to greatness or who achieve greatness—end up badly. There is a quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Show me a hero and I'll tell you a tragedy."

There's the age-old myth of Icarus trying to fly too close to the sun, and there is the suggestion that there is something dangerous about the pursuit of greatness. And at the same time while you read books and plays—Death of a Salesman is such a clear example, where Willy wants to be a great salesman and he wants his sons to be leaders of men. He pushes so hard he ends up committing suicide, is very disappointed in his kids—there are other characters, I noticed, who were what I came to call quiet leaders.

You also end up defining quiet leaders almost through a series of negatives. They're not making high-stakes decisions. They're often not at the top of organizations. They don't have the spotlight and publicity on them. They think of themselves modestly; they often don't even think of themselves as leaders. But they are acting quietly, effectively, with political astuteness, to basically make things somewhat better, sometimes much better than they would otherwise be.

If you look behind lots of great heroic leaders, you find them doing lots of quiet, patient work themselves.
—Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.

Sometimes a few people were aware of what they did; sometimes nobody is aware of what they did. There aren't medal ceremonies and often the people involved don't think they would deserve one if the medals were being given out. But often they're people, I found…in the cases I looked at carefully, who find that some situation or problem or difficulty affecting a person, affecting an organization, is really bothering them; it gets under their skin. While other people would say, "Hey, why are you getting carried away about this?", they care about it. They commit themselves and keep working tenaciously, so that over a period of time they find some ways to get stuff done.

Q: When most people think of leaders they think of real brash types, even rebels. In business, for example, Jack Welch springs to mind as a well-known leader. The idea of a quiet leader seems almost the flip side of that.

A: It is the flip side of a standard or stereotypical view of a leader who speaks the truth or says what has to be done, who inspires others to do it in a critical moment. But I'm skeptical that in the countless meetings Jack Welch spent his career going to, in each one of these meetings it was the Jack Welch Show, and that he heard what everybody had to say and then announced the right thing and inspired everybody to do it.

You have the famous example of Rosa Parks, saying, "I'm not sitting in the back of the bus." Well, while that was a remarkable act of courage on her part, and in some degree was kind of a spontaneous event, she'd just had enough of this kind of treatment from one particular bus driver. She'd even stopped riding on his bus and got on by accident. She'd been to a number of civil rights training programs. After she was arrested, the people in the civil rights movement sat down and asked themselves, "Is this the right person, is this the right time, is this the right case to challenge segregated busing?"

So there's a lot of preparatory work and a lot of careful work afterwards. Quiet leadership is not really the flip side. If you look behind lots of great heroic leaders, you find them doing lots of quiet, patient work themselves.

Q: In one of the chapters you mention mixed motives and the importance of accepting one's own mixed motives as a quiet leader. Do the three virtues of quiet leadership that you describe—restraint, modesty and tenacity—pose a particular challenge to people in business?

A: If you're in business-and a number of other lines of work—there's lots of pressure to get lots of things done and the sooner the better. Also, a lot of what needs to be done is hard to do. You need confidence—which can run at odds with modesty. And you need to get yourself and others to get some stuff done now—which can run at odds with restraint. There are many cases when what needs to be done is pretty clear, and with a little work and some assertion of authority you can say, "This needs to be done."

My book tends to focus on cases where somebody is really pulled in different directions. You refer to the mixed and complicated motives. Often, if you're not sure you're being pulled in different directions, that's because the situation itself is complicated. It's not because there's something wrong with you—unless you feel this way all the time.

Then, those are the times when a degree of modesty that says, "I've got to learn a little more," restraint that says, "I better not rush in because I don't know which way to go," —I think this approach is probably a little bit more appropriate. The famous first lines in Baby and Child Care by Dr. Spock, which is the bible and great bestseller of the '50s and '60s, I believe were, "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do."

If your instincts are telling you "Tread warily," then some of the advice in this book is relevant. If the little voice inside is saying, "Look, this is what really needs to be done," well then get on with it or persuade others.

I don't mean this book [should be used] as a universal tool. And there are also cases where something that looks like heroism, albeit on a smaller scale than Martin Luther King, Jr., is also appropriate. Sometimes, something needs to be said in a meeting that's not being said, and it simply takes courage to say it: But it ought to be said. I wouldn't call somebody who does that a hero, but that's different from some of the approaches described in this book.

Q: Where can managers find inspiration and support for some of the difficult dilemmas they'd like to resolve quietly, if they don't want to do grandstanding, if they don't want to alert anyone to the problem they're trying to solve?

A: Support, in a tangible sense, comes from having people that you can talk with: friends, family members, spouses. A difficulty, often, is that these people are outside the workplace situation. As a result, they can sometimes see things more clearly, but they also might be removed from some of the nuances and specifics that you get only if you're immersed. But they can be helpful.

I think another way of learning how to do this is to pick out a few people in the place where you work—and I think in most places there are some people who just seem to have a talent or a skill at moving things forward in difficult situations—and watch them. Try to see what they do, and try to do some of it. See how what they do differs from what your instincts tell you to do.

These aren't role models in the grand sense. But look more carefully immediately around you. Most people will find some people who are rather quiet and quite effective. In a pinch, if you've got a relationship with someone like that and you've got a problem, go talk with him or her.

Q: Your book mentions there are some pitfalls in quiet leadership. How can a manager really know whether he or she is being quietly effective about solving a problem, or just missing in action?

A: I think one sign is if your thinking, reflecting, and consideration of alternatives just seem to be going in circles, you're probably not making any progress. Secondly, I think you need to decide what it is that needs to be done and roughly when it needs to be done, and then if you're not making much progress you may be taking the wrong approach.

The other possibility is that the degree of difficulty is just too high. And I don't really know how you decide between "It's just too hard" or "I'm going too slow." A lot of the situations I've described in the book are politically tricky. If a person moves too aggressively or too openly it's going to hurt their career; it's going to hurt their reputation. It's going to lead someone who's doing what they shouldn't do to do even more; it's going to tip off the adversary.

I guess another criterion is if you're finding yourself in situations where you seem to be meeting resistance and running into danger, maybe you're pushing this a little too far. And if you're being cautious, drilling down and reflecting, but you're not really doing anything, you've got to move to plan B and do something.

Q: Do leaders need recognition to be leaders? Should they need recognition? Is a leader a leader if nobody knows it?

A: I think most people do need recognition. It's a perfectly natural thing. I think if a person working with and through other people has made the world a better place or avoided a problem for some organization, I'm willing to call him or her a leader.

Whether they get a medal or an award or fit in a category in a book somewhere I don't think matters. In an ideal world, you do it because it's the right thing and virtue is its own reward; but people need a little more than that. I think we need the recognition, often, to encourage us to do more. But the recognition doesn't make an act of leadership an act of leadership.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.