Quiet Leadership

Dr Anthony Howard

March 3, 2021

My mother was very active in our local community. She seemed to know about, and act on, someone’s need before it was well known. When there were floods, fires, or fetes—all a regular occurrence in our rural Australian community—my mother was there to lend a hand, and marshal others to do their bit. With the passage of time she became less involved, however never seemed to lose sight of who may need help.

She passed away a couple of years ago, and I remember her funeral as if it was this morning. The small country church overflowed with hundreds and hundreds of people, few of whom I knew. Several made a point of introducing themselves and relaying stories of what my mother had done for them, and the impact she had on their life.

My mother was what we might consider a ‘quiet leader’. I find myself reflecting on this after a recent LinkedIn post by Gary Hamel, the renowned management thinker, who defined a leader as ‘someone who makes a catalytic contribution to collective accomplishment in difficult circumstances—whatever their role.’ On first reading, this appears reasonable, however, it risks restricting leadership to the few, returning us to the discredited notion of a leader as a ‘great man’; the chief who rides in on a white horse, overcoming insurmountable odds to turn the tide of the battle.

Hamel’s definition incorporates the notions of significant contribution, collective effort, and challenging environment, independent of one’s title. Despite there being more definitions of the term leader than there are leaders in the world—a Google search returns two and a half billion hits—the well-regarded definitions include four key dimensions: the relational aspect, the use of influence rather than position, a purposeful aspect, and an ethical component. In other words, despite the different ways we may describe being a leader, there is a recognition that it is grounded in a relationship with one or more others; that it relies on having some manner of vision or purpose toward which those persons aim; that they are influenced to do so by the leader, rather than (say) coercion or command; and that—since the relationship is between persons—leaders act in an ethical manner that is conducive to human flourishing. Hamel’s definition contains elements of, and does not contradict, this understanding.

However, does one need to make a ‘catalytic contribution … in difficult circumstances’ in order to be considered a leader? Sometimes the circumstances require a steady hand on the tiller: quiet confidence in difficult circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances lack challenge and simply require perseverance over a long period of time: quiet commitment in smooth sailing. Sometimes the moment requires my mother.

Leaders lead in good times and bad. At times their contribution seems negligible, while at other moments it is pivotal. One cannot deny a person is a leader simply because they lead through the mundane rather than the complex, the repetitive rather than the catalytic. These leaders continue to show up and do what is required, in often what is a thankless task. However, without them, the task would not get done, and the mission not be met.

These are the quiet leaders who draw no attention to themselves. They do not accelerate the business or community, nor lift others to new heights in the face of challenge. They are there, however, when they are needed, often unwittingly adopting the Churchillian motto: ‘never, ever, give up.’ They often toil with little hope of reward, doing a task that few others would do, seeking no recompense other than an intrinsic sense of contribution.

My mother was such a leader. She was a leader in her family, her church, and her community, although she simply thought in terms of ‘doing what needs to get done’. That could mean running ‘lamington drives’—baking a popular Australian cake, of which she made tens of thousands, and selling them to raise funds for worthy causes; setting up a production line to make sandwiches for tired firefighters; organising stalls at the parish fete; or giving speeches—not something she was at all comfortable with—when her husband became Mayor of our city. My mother would have defined leadership as service. She demonstrated that a leader is someone who sees a need, acts on the need, and asks others to help where they can. You know you are a leader when others say yes to your request for help in the mission.

However, in the eyes of many Margaret Howard would not count as a leader. She had no university education. She devoted her life to her family and friends, and never enjoyed the recognition one gains in paid employment.

My mother would not fit with Hamel’s notion of a leader as someone who makes a catalytic contribution to collective accomplishment in difficult circumstances. Yet, she made a profound difference in the lives of so many. She was a quiet leader, a servant leader, who understands being a leader is primarily about caring for another person. She is not alone, as there are many other leaders who possess similar traits. We do not know who they are, although we see their footprint everywhere in shared care and concern for humanity. If you are such a leader, please don’t think you have to become a catalytic agent of change, who shines in moments of difficulty. Just be yourself, and care for the people around you.

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About the Author

Dr. Anthony Howard

Dr Anthony Howard is a CEO, entrepreneur, thought leader, philosopher, and author who focuses his energies on helping high level leaders excel in their leadership. People started calling him ‘the CEO Whisperer’ over a decade ago, as they recognised his uncommon insights about people in complex challenging leadership roles, combined with an understanding of the true nature of leadership, and how it impacts communities and corporations.

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