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Quiet Leadership: The Picture That’s Worth a Thousand Words

Michael Althouse, M.A.
Peagram Consultant

Leadership and business

Take a moment to consider the types of thoughts, feelings, and conceptualizations that these two words illicit in your mind. What does your idea of a business leader look like? What are their personality traits and how do they interact with others within their organization?

The chances are that most peoples’ go-to mental depiction of conventional business leaders drums up ideas of an individual who is outspoken, assertive, and possibly a bit domineering. They know what they want and how to execute their vision; and in doing so, make this very clear to their followers and expect others to follow suit. However, this stereotypical conception of the seemingly cut-throat business leader is not representative of all, and probably most, leaders out there.

The evolution of leadership theory and research over the years has solidified the understanding that there are no one size fits all approaches for leaders. In fact, leadership can be compartmentalized into various leadership styles and approaches, each with their own pros and cons. The Multi-Factor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) developed by Bernard M. Bass and Bruce J. Avolio (2004) breaks down leadership into three distinct styles: (1) Transformational, (2) Transactional, and (3) Passive/Avoidant, each with their own sub-categories of respective leadership approaches. This assessment can be a powerful tool in understanding individual leadership styles but, with all of the discourse on leadership, one particularly interesting and unique perspective is often left out of the big picture: Quiet Leadership.

So, the question still remains: What exactly is quiet leadership and how can we raise the volume on such a hushed topic to empower quiet leaders within the workplace to have an elevated voice?

In many ways, a quiet leader may not be the head of an organization making key high-stakes decisions, but they’re often time’s a necessary gear that makes the metaphorical organizational clock tick. These individuals lead with a sense of humility and an ever-lending listening ear. They are supportive, uplifting, and inspirational; they are thoughtful, reflective, and considerate. In many ways, a quiet leader is one who leads from the back in order to empower others to commit to their goals and excel.

Overall, with all of the above taken into consideration, there are just a few more tidbits of information to think about when trying to become a more effective quiet leader or to take your personal leadership style to the next level. David Rock, in his critically acclaimed book, “Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work,” outlines some of the key components of quiet leadership that can effectively transform all leaders from ordinary to extraordinary with positive return on investment to match. These six steps include:

Step 1: Think About Thinking

Allow others to do all the thinking while you focus on the solutions. This requires developing strong active listening skills and foresight.
Stretch yourself and others to the edge of your comfort zone to drive long-lasting, meaningful change. This will encourage a shift in focus and conscious thought while normalizing emotions felt along the way. As we normalize the boundaries of our previous comfort zone it expands them outward, allowing us to reach even farther.
Get comfortable with providing regular feedback and accentuate the positive.
Establish structure to dialogue. Ask for permission and agree to a context for a conversation. This will standardize conversational norms to ensure both leader and followers are on the same page in how they discuss key issues.
Choose your focus. The Choose Your Focus Model provides five mental frames to consider in any situation: (1) Vision, (2) Planning, (3) Detail, (4) Problem, and (5) Drama.

Step 2: Listen for Potential

Make it a habit to generously and sincerely listen for the potential in others. As a quiet leader, you recognize that they have the answers to their problems and that you are there to guide them to their solution. This is very similar to coaching!
Take a bird’s eye view approach to listening. Don’t get caught up in the details—listen for high-level patterns, qualities, and themes in what the other person is saying. If you see things with too much detail, through your own lens, or are influenced by self-interest or emotion, chances are you will not be able to effectively listen for potential.
Pay attention to the four key mental frames that cloud our clarity
Details (getting too caught up in a web of information)
Filters (seeing things our own way)
Agendas (or Self-Interest):
Hot Spots (or Triggers)

Step 3: Speak with Intent

Be succinct. Use tact when communicating with others to drive critical points of view without overloading others with information.
Be specific. Focus on key points of what the other person is saying and reflect it back to them so that they understand that you understand them.
Be generous. Speak with the intent to add value to what the other person is saying and to probe them for more information in order to guide them to their own solutions.

Step 4: Dance Towards Insight

Create Awareness of a Dilemma. The first step toward insight is in recognizing a dilemma, what it looks like, and the conflicting thoughts and feelings that we might have on exactly what course of action to take.
Reflection. Ask probing questions to illicit deeper thought and spark problem solving.
Illumination. That “Aha, I’ve got it!” moment.
Motivation. After experiencing an illuminating moment about a dilemma, we often become motivated to take action. This is a period of time that passes quickly, so don’t let that spark of inspiration go to waste.

Step 5: The CREATE Model

Current Reality (CR). Overview your current organizational landscape. What does it look like and what steps do you need to take to help others reflect on their thinking and bring about their own illumination.
Explore Alternatives (EA). Don’t just settle on one solution. Generate alternatives—if you think hard enough, the best solution may not always be the first one that comes to mind.
Tap their Energy (TE). Take advantage of illumination when it occurs. This is your opportunity as a leader to have individuals commit to action—set specific goals, deadlines, have them commit to reporting back, and generate tangible outcomes that will benefit the organization while empowering them in the process.

Step 6: Follow Up

Don’t forget to do your part as a leader and follow up. Be consistent, be positive, and be supportive. This makes follow up a routine part of the decision-making, goal-setting, and action planning processes that go on within your organization. Being positive and supportive while focusing on and recognizing (1) observable facts and behaviors, (2) the importance of empathy and encouragement, (3) key learnings or insights and their implications, as well as (4) identifying new goals can help foster the growth and development of your followers.
Now that you’re in the know about quiet leadership, what are your next steps in empowering quiet leaders within your organization to enact change? What contribution does quiet leadership have on your own effectiveness as a leader?

Get out there and make a difference—I believe in you!

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