Is this the era of the 'quiet leader?'

Bold and loud makes the history books. Quiet usually doesn't. But you know what quiet leaders have accomplished by looking at the people they lead.

Jens Meyer/AP
A worker transported ballot boxes in Erfurt, Germany, Sept. 6; German elections are Sept. 22.

Forceful leaders are often known by only one name – Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin. They often pick up suffixes like “the great,” “the magnificent,” or “the conqueror.” They’ve got style. They’re bold, charismatic. They exult in glory, crave applause, and specialize in grand gestures. These guys (they’re usually guys) bestride the narrow world and change the course of history – though not always for the better.

In a Monitor cover story, Sara Miller Llana profiles a leader who is arguably the most powerful woman in the world. Germany’s Angela Merkel, as you’ll see, is cut from a different cloth. She is quiet, and she listens, works incrementally, and rarely makes a show of her leadership. A scientist by training, she grew up in the straitened society of East Germany. 

The Germany she leads is the economic engine of Europe – which is making the Germany-dominated European Union, despite ongoing debt and austerity issues, a globally competitive organization of 500 million people.

Crucially, the woman who looks set to serve a third term as Germany’s chancellor is cautious. Like most Germans, she has a fundamental understanding of the problems of overreaching and the poison of personality. Like most East Germans, she knows that nations are not forever. 

Those qualities of quiet leadership are the same ones distilled by Joseph Badaracco, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied this form of leadership (see “Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing”). Quiet leaders, he says, are known for their patience, care, and incrementalism. Albert Schweitzer is one example. Dr. Schweitzer believed that public action was overrated and that small and obscure deeds mattered most. The sum of them, he said, “is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition.”

Even heroic figures, Professor Badaracco notes, often do an enormous amount of organizing and consensus-building that is overshadowed by their dramatic moment on the world stage. He suggests we not concentrate so much on great figures and riveting events. Instead, he says, pay attention to people who are working on complex tasks, who shun oversimplification, let others take credit, and understand that they must navigate uncertainty. 

“The world is so complex and frustrating that it is natural that people want someone who cuts through all that,” Badaracco says. But while decisiveness is cool, carefulness can be better. Even delay can be a virtue if the time is used for intelligent analysis and consensus-building.

Boring, right? There aren’t a lot of epic poems or blockbuster movies about quiet leaders. But you know them when you see the organizations, businesses, and countries they lead – collections of creative individuals living and working at high levels of productivity, purpose, and contentment. Which is not an argument for laissez-faire leadership. There still has to be a decider and buck-stopper. A leaderless organization drifts. Pre-Napoleon France and Weimar Germany show the danger of drift. A quiet leader like Angela Merkel wants neither drama nor drift.

Quiet leaders are totally engaged even if they are almost invisible. To see them, look at the people they lead.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. You can reach him at editor@csmonitor.com.

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