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Ask a room of developing leaders to name a leader they admire, someone who for them embodies leadership, and, inevitably, some of the same names will be mentioned.

I won’t list them here but they are usually men, often charismatic, often “victors”, often orators.

One category of leaders then. One type. Heroes? In the situation in which they found themselves they succeeded and their style and approach was situationally appropriate. But we don’t all have to win World War II whilst ‘standing alone’, we are not all seeking independence for our country, we aren’t trying to inspire a nation by putting a man on the moon, we aren’t all at risk of losing a key battle to the Spanish Armada. 

This is not a blog about situational or adaptive leadership though, crucial as they may be. Plenty of those already exist.

I see much written about the idea of “introverted leadership” as a comparison to “extraverted leadership”  and wonder if this is also a false friend. That would imply that there are just two diametrically opposed types of leaders, wouldn’t it? I don’t think this is the case. These are facets of a person’s style or preference and there are many shades of grey between the two extremes. I’d come at this from a different angle:

When I’m working with coachees who are grappling with leadership, be they ‘first-time leaders’ or new CEOs, my starting point is often to ask them ‘how do you want it to be around you?’ In other words which are the conditions you want to create. The culture of your organisation as impacted by you as leader. This can be followed by ‘and how is it?’ and off we go into exploration of their overall leadership brand. It’s not so often that people want to be all about having a powerful or dominant personality. That has to be good news by the way.

It (leadership brand) is not just about what some people still insist on referring to as ‘the soft stuff’: inclusive, open, values-based and so on. It’s also about a relentless focus on high-performance, winning in the marketplace, increasing market share. Of course it is. “In everything we do we strive for excellence” is just as important as “everyone in our business feeling equally included”. It’s both.

The skills required of organisational leaders these days are myriad – and what I’m trying to suggest is  that one of them is the ability to be quiet, to be understated, to be noticing as much as you are speaking, to use a few choice words instead of many. To be able to influence a room with one carefully chosen sentence. To be able to apply boundaries with a gentle “I’m not sure about that” instead of “here are 12 reasons why I don’t like your idea”.

I’ve long been drawn to quiet leadership, to an understated style. I feel it is more likely to gain followers across an organisation as opposed to, dare I say it, a more macho or heroic leadership style which will only appeal to those who find ‘heroic’ appealing. 

So what might this look like?

  • Determined delivery of objectives via a considered and persuasive influencing style
  • Carrying people with you on more occasions instead of directing
  • Consistency with principles and values
  • Humility in front of an audience
  • Forming coalitions and alliances across and outside the business – via which you achieve your strategic goals
  • Self-awareness when it comes to personal impact – how you choose to impact on others
  • Using fewer words instead of “listen to me”
  • Listening, noticing, reflecting
  • Keeping calm when others are feeling anything but calm

Of course there are situations which require directive & even charismatic leadership and there is, for the avoidance of doubt, nothing wrong with it at times. However the ability to flex one’s style towards being more subtle is, I think, in keeping with our times. It is, I think, much more attractive in a leader. 

Crucially, I can think of many examples of winning leaders who win because their style is calm and understated. This means that there is something to aspire to. I think there’s something in this. I’d like to see us talking about it more. What do you think?

How can you shift your approach in the direction of understated or quiet leadership? What would this look like for you? What would it be like? What exactly would be the difference ? Which acts or actions will foster change for you? Which skills will you use more and which less?