Not All Great Leaders Are Heroic

In Leading Quietly, Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. says modesty and restraint can be responsible for impressive achievements

In Leading Quietly, Harvard Business School Professor Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. posits that the most effective leaders aren't the high-profile, headline-making corporate executives but the men and women who, through "modesty and restraint," influence organizations and individuals. While such leaders aren't the sort to draw attention to themselves, their actions and accomplishments speak volumes about their successes. The book is based on the results of a four-year study conducted by Badaracco. The following excerpt is from the introduction to the book:

Introduction Every profession and walk of life has its great figures, leaders, and heroes. Think of the men and women who create or transform major companies, the political leaders who reshape society, the firefighters who risk their lives to save others. We exalt these individuals as role models and celebrate their achievements. They represent, we feel, the true model of leadership.

But do they really? I ask this because, over the course of a career spent studying management and leadership, I have observed that the most effective leaders are rarely public heroes. These men and women aren't high-profile champions of causes, and don't want to be. They don't spearhead ethical crusades. They move patiently, carefully, and incrementally. They do what is right -- for their organizations, for the people around them, and for themselves -- inconspicuously and without casualties.

I have come to call these people quiet leaders because their modesty and restraint are in large measure responsible for their impressive achievements. And since many big problems can only be resolved by a long series of small efforts, quiet leadership, despite its seemingly slow pace, often turns out to be the quickest way to make an organization -- and the world -- a better place. This book is the result of a four-year study of quiet leadership. It presents a series of stories describing quiet leaders at work and draws practical lessons from their efforts. Underlying these stories is an unorthodox view of leadership. It builds on the heroic approach, but offers a much broader perspective on what counts as responsible, effective leadership in organizations.

Albert Schweitzer's View

But do we really need a broader perspective? Don't the great leaders teach us what we need to know? These are important questions, and the answer to them isn't simple. Stories of heroic effort do teach us indispensable lessons in courage and dedication. They also show us the highest human ideals and help parents and teachers pass on important values. And these are not merely stories: Without the efforts of great individuals, our world would be an emptier and meaner place. We owe these men and women our admiration and gratitude.

The problem is that the heroic view of leadership looks at people in terms of a pyramid. At the top are the great figures. They have clear, strong values and know right from wrong. They act boldly, sacrifice themselves for noble causes, set compelling examples for others, and ultimately change the world. At the bottom of the pyramid are life's bystanders, shirkers, and cowards. These are T. S. Eliot's "hollow men," afraid to act and preoccupied with self-interest. They inspire no one and change nothing.

But where does this view leave everyone else? Most people, most of the time, are neither saving the world nor exploiting it. They are living their lives, doing their jobs, and trying to take care of the people around them. The pyramid approach, by saying little about everyday life and ordinary people, seems to consign much of humanity to a murky, moral limbo. This is a serious mistake.

Consider the view of Albert Schweitzer, a man who, by any standard, was a truly heroic leader. In his late twenties, Schweitzer abandoned two promising career paths -- one as a musician, the other as a theologian -- that would have led to a comfortable, settled, and secure life. Instead, he became a medical missionary and spent most of his life serving lepers and victims of sleeping sickness in central Africa. His decades of hard, lonely, and sometimes dangerous work were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, and Schweitzer used the funds from the prize to expand his hospital. He worked there until his death at the age of ninety.

Schweitzer changed many lives and inspired countless others. Yet, in his autobiography, he wrote these words about the role of great individuals in shaping the world:

Of all the will toward the ideal in mankind only a small part can manifest itself in public action. All the rest of this force must be content with small and obscure deeds. The sum of these, however, is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition. The latter, compared to the former, are like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean.

This is a remarkable, almost radical statement. Here is Albert Schweitzer, a great man, telling us to rethink and even devalue the role of great figures in human affairs. He compares their efforts to "foam" and instead praises "small and obscure deeds."

Schweitzer's view represents a profoundly different way of thinking about leadership. Consider, for example, the Tylenol episode of the early 1980s -- probably the most famous tale of responsible business leadership in the last twenty years.

In 1982, someone put cyanide into a number of Tylenol capsules, resulting in the deaths of seven people. The national media seized the story and wouldn't let go. Millions of Americans panicked, fearing their medicine cabinets contained a deadly poison. Instead of hunkering down, Johnson & Johnson's chairman, James Burke, took immediate and bold steps to lead the company though the ensuing crisis. He cooperated swiftly and fully with public authorities and the media, defining the crisis as an issue of public health, not corporate profits. He immediately withdrew all Tylenol from the market, costing his company millions of dollars. Johnson & Johnson then quickly introduced triple-seal packing for Tylenol, and the industry soon followed its example. Burke received enormous credit for his efforts and surely earned it.

This story is dramatic and inspiring and has been told and retold countless times. Yet, from Schweitzer's perspective, this chronicle of leadership can easily mislead us. Is the Tylenol episode the real story of responsible leadership at Johnson & Johnson during the 1980s? What was everyone else in the company doing during this period? Were the thousands of managers, supervisors, and other employees just cranking out Tylenol capsules, Band-Aids, and other products -- all the while enjoying a nice moral holiday?

The answer to this question is clearly no. Like people in organizations everywhere, they were dealing with the difficult everyday challenges of life and work: making sure the products they sold were safe, helping coworkers with personal problems, developing new drugs and medical devices, and making sure their employees were treated with fairness and respect. The "non-heroes" at Johnson & Johnson did all this without the resources and support available to the company's executives, and they did these things day after day and year after year. In the grand scheme of things, their cumulative effort made the world a much better place. In fact, from Schweitzer's perspective, their efforts were the grand scheme of things.

To understand and learn from what these men and women did, we have to take Schweitzer's perspective to heart. This means looking away from great figures, extreme situations, and moments of high historical drama and paying closer attention to people around us. If we look at leadership with a wide-angle lens, we can see men and women who are far from heroes and yet are successfully solving important problems and contributing to a better world.

Messy, Everyday Challenges

This broader perspective reveals that the vast majority of problems calling for leadership are everyday situations. These situations don't come labeled as strategic or critical, and they aren't reserved for people at the top of organizations. Anyone can face these challenges at almost any time. Hard choices don't involve "time out" from everyday life, but are embedded in its very fabric.

Imagine, for example, that you could hover over a town, lift the roofs off houses, offices, and other buildings, and watch what is going on inside. In one home, a couple is arguing about moving the man's father into a nursing home. In an office, two government officials are talking quietly about investigating a long-term employee rumored to be pilfering funds. The head of a hospital emergency room stares at a spreadsheet, wondering if she can avoid imminent reductions in the number of indigent patients her unit treats. A loan officer at a bank has just discovered a serious accounting error: Should he report it and create an organizational mess or just leave things alone?

These are everyday practical problems, routine and unremarkable-or, at least, that's how they look at first. But closer inspection reveals something else. Ostensibly ordinary problems can be incredibly messy, complicated, ambiguous-and important. As such, they are real leadership challenges.

Take the case of the loan officer. What could be more mundane, even tedious, than an accounting problem? But once the loan officer stopped and looked carefully at the issue, he found there was nothing simple about it. Why, for example, had such a large problem been overlooked for so long? One dismaying possibility was that senior management had buried the error and wanted it to stay that way. Bringing the problem to light could cost a colleague his job and cause one of the bank's clients to go bankrupt. But concealing the problem would be a violation of the law and the loan officer's sense of professionalism and integrity. In this case and many others, the "everydayness" of problems disguises their real complexity.

The loan officer, like men and women in organizations everywhere, was dealing with just one of a multitude of difficult, commonplace challenges. What do you do, for example, when you don't have the time or the resources to do what you really believe you should do? What if doing the right thing involves bending or breaking the rules? What if a situation is so murky and uncertain you don't even know what the right thing is? What if someone with a lot of power is pressuring you to do something wrong? Questions like these define the complex territory of responsible, everyday leadership.

The loan officer did the right thing-but in ways that don't fit the heroic model. He found a way to disclose the problem, get the loan restructured, protect his colleague's job, and avoid risking his own. He accomplished this without doing anything dramatic or heroic. Instead, he followed many of the guidelines presented in this book. His efforts were cautious and well planned, he moved shrewdly and kept his political antennae fully extended, and he bent some of the bank's rules in the process of doing what was right. In short, he resolved his problem through a distinctive, unorthodox, and extremely useful way of thinking and acting.

Surprising Approaches

My understanding of this approach to leadership emerged after I carefully examined scores of situations in which someone, typically a manager in an organization, faced a difficult ethical challenge and resolved it in a practical, responsible way. I found that in these situations, individuals rarely took bold, courageous steps. They didn't articulate values and inspire a large number of other people to follow them. They had little interest in self-sacrifice. Often, they weren't even sure how to get a handle on the problem in front of them.

As individuals, these men and women were modest and unassuming, skeptical or shrewdly realistic, and had a healthy sense of their own self-interest. They weren't charismatic, had little power, and didn't see themselves as leaders in the conventional sense. Their idea of taking action was working behind the scenes-patiently, carefully, and prudently.

In the end, they did the right thing or at least got it done. They handled difficult choices and tough situations in ways that made the world a better place. Although all the names have been changed, and the stories are disguised versions of actual events, this book uses real-life situations to describe how quiet leaders think about problems and how they work on the challenges they face. Hence, the book is, in part, a tool-kit or user's manual. Each chapter presents a specific guideline that quiet leaders often follow.

The basic guidelines can be summarized briefly. The first chapter advises people facing difficult problems not to kid themselves about how well they understand the situation or how much they can control. The chapter that follows explains why, in difficult situations, they should expect their motives to be mixed and even confused-and explores how valuable and useful mixed motives can be.

The subsequent chapters follow in the same vein, offering highly pragmatic guidance. Count your political capital and spend it carefully. If your situation is uncertain or hazardous, find ways to buy time before you do anything. Use the time not to moralize or preach, but to drill down into the technical and political aspects of your situation. Search hard for imaginative ways to bend the rules. Instead of moving aggressively to solve a problem, try to nudge, test, and escalate gradually. Finally, don't dismiss compromise solutions-quiet leaders see the crafting of creative compromises as an invaluable practical art and the essence of responsible leadership.

Although the guidelines can be stated simply, using them well is tricky business. For one thing, they can be misinterpreted and misused. Bending the rules can shade into breaking them. Some compromises are nothing more than unimaginative exercises in splitting the difference, while others are sell-outs of basic principles. Each of the guidelines for quiet leadership is a two-edged sword, and all of them can become excuses for doing nothing or taking sleazy shortcuts. Hence, each guideline has to be understood fully and examined carefully.

The guidelines can also be misleading if they are viewed as the right way to deal with all really hard organizational problems. There are times when the right course of action is clear, when compromises betray important values, and when leadership means taking a stand and paying a price. Quiet leaders understand that some situations require direct, forceful, courageous action, and a few even call for heroism. Hence, it is critical to have a sense of when and how these tools should be used and to understand their limits and risks.

In general, however, quiet leaders see their approach as the most useful way to deal with the difficult problems that come their way. They view strong measures and heroism as a last resort, not the first choice or the standard model. This is why Navy fliers, the brave men and women who land streaking jets on aircraft carriers, are told in training that "there are no old, bold pilots." In other words, preparation, caution, care, and attention to detail are usually the best approach to everyday challenges.

There Are No Little Things

But what do these patient, unglamorous, everyday efforts add up to? The answer is they are almost everything. The vast majority of difficult, important human problems -- both inside and outside organizations -- are not solved by a swift, decisive stroke from someone at the top. What usually matters are careful, thoughtful, small, practical efforts by people working far from the limelight. In short, quiet leadership is what moves and changes the world.

This conclusion is both important and easy to dismiss. From the time we are very young, we learn to admire great leaders, the men and women whose vision, courage, and sacrifice have made our world a much better place. But thinking only about great figures and bold, historic acts can make it hard to understand why quiet, everyday leadership matters as much as it does.

Sometimes small efforts are snowballs that roll down hills and accumulate force. Sometimes, in situations poised on the knife's edge, they tip things in the right direction. Sometimes ostensibly small acts influence other people months or even years later by taking root in their experience, gestating, and shaping their development. And, even when larger consequences do not flow from small acts, these acts matter simply because they are right. Bruce Barton, a remarkable business executive who founded a major ad agency, served in Congress, and wrote widely about religion, observed, "Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things-a chance word, a tap on the shoulder, or a penny dropped on a newsstand -- I am tempted to think there are no little things."

Put differently, quiet leadership is more than a set of highly pragmatic tactics. It is a way of thinking about people, organizations, and effective action. It is a way of understanding the flow of events and discerning the best ways to make a difference. And, in a small way, quiet leadership is also an act of faith: an expression of confidence in the ultimate force of what Schweitzer called "small and obscure deeds." In fact, this implicit faith is something quiet leaders share with great leaders and heroes-most of whom worked quietly and patiently, for years or decades, laying the groundwork for their celebrated achievements.

The rest of this book examines quiet leaders at work and draws lessons from their efforts. We will see why this approach to leadership is so effective and also examine its drawbacks and risks. The basic aim of the book is to provide a set of useful, practical ideas for people who want to live by their values, take on hard, serious problems, and do so without risking their careers and reputations. However, before we look carefully at what quiet leaders do, it is important to understand how they see the world and how they think about people and organizations.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business School Press. Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing by Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. Copyright 2002 Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. All Rights Reserved.

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