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Quiet leadership is still leadership (and matters more than you think)

It takes emotional intelligence, and a bit of practice, to exert positive influence outside the spotlight.

Quiet leadership is still leadership (and matters more than you think)
[Photo: rawpixel/iStock]

When we think about leaders’ behaviors, it’s easier to notice the big things they do in public: A managers shares some news with her team in a meeting. A CEO makes a controversial hiring (or firing) decision that earns press coverage. A head of state tweets something incendiary. Whether we’re aware of it or not, it’s episodes like these–and what people we trust tend to say about them–that affect our beliefs about whether a given leader is good or bad, not to mention our ideas about leadership generally.

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But other acts of leadership are much harder to see, generate little to no discussion, and yet are just as influential. “Quiet” forms of leadership, in other words, matter more than you might imagine. Here’s what that looks like and why it’s so important.


Related: What you think makes a good leader probably doesn’t


Strategy is only part of the game

Running an organization effectively requires a mix of strategic and operational work. Leaders’ public statements certainly matter. They signal the strategic direction a leader hopes to take. Without a clear vision, it’s hard for team members to work together to make that vision a reality. Obvious enough, right?

But less apparent is how profoundly the range of actions leaders take outside the spotlight can influence an organization’s success. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago while sitting in on a meeting with a high-level administrator at my university. We’d just heard a presentation on a project that aims to identify future problems the university might face.

Often in meetings like this, the rest of the group rubber-stamps the proposal and things move ahead, even if there are people in the room who have unspoken misgivings. In this case, the proposed project seemed to focus primarily on issues that were actually fairly well known. As soon as the presentation finished, though, this administrator said something surprising: “We can do better.” He then outlined a plan to be more vigilant in identifying new problems beyond just the familiar ones.

This struck me. Challenging the work someone has done can make for a tricky interpersonal situation. That’s often true for many of the “operational” matters within organizations–those meant to execute a strategy set at the top. While the project as outlined was mediocre, it wasn’t negligent. It would’ve been easy just to approve it in order to let the presenter save face and avoid creating more work for people. But the organization would’ve been strategically worse off for that; we’d be less prepared to weather future issues that cropped up.

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Unremarkable as it might sound, connecting the dots between operational and strategic mediocrity and then choosing to draw attention to it was a significant step to take. Leaders have many chances to make sure their teams produce high-quality work that prepares their organizations for the future. But many of those chances are easy to pass up; for one thing, they may feel like micromanaging. Yet it’s in quiet, less-public moments like these that important standards get set–and that work on the ground gets linked, crucially, to goals on the horizon.


Related: The four personality traits of engaging leaders


Low-profile leadership takes practice

When projects aren’t permitted to move forward with obvious flaws, people can earn better chances to succeed. And when they know they need to bring their “A” games, most will go beyond the bare minimum it takes to complete a task. It doesn’t always require a big pep talk at an all-hands meeting to rally people to do better.

There are at least a couple of lessons here for leaders hoping to maximize their influence in lower-profile situations. First, take time to practice your quiet leadership skills. You might not relish opportunities to get up in front of a group and share your vision. But you certainly have chances to lead by example–doing high-quality work and asking others to do the same. Make constructive suggestions (always in an emotionally intelligent way) for how to improve the work that’s being done. Especially if you’re earlier in your career and don’t yet hold a high-level (or any) managerial role, offer to pitch in to make it better.

Second, pay attention to start noticing the quiet leadership taking place all around you–particularly from people who aren’t necessarily in charge. Make sure they get recognized for those efforts. On the flip side, pay careful attention as well to those who get out in front of a crowd but may not really contribute behind the scenes.

Those people may look like leaders but don’t always bring out the best in the people around them. You know the kind.

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