Great leaders inspire us. They challenge us with their unswerving dedication to a noble cause. They convict us by their pure motives and self-sacrifice. They are remembered for accomplishing great deeds. They are celebrated for making the world a better place.
Great leaders inspire us. But most of us are not great leaders.
For this reason, it is unhelpful to elevate great leaders as models of leadership. They are the exception and not the norm. They are great, but we must settle for being good. And this is not a bad thing.
Although great leaders are celebrated for accomplishing great deeds, it is good leaders – the quiet leaders –that make the biggest difference and effect the greatest change in this world. The most effective leadership is performed by quiet leaders who “patiently, carefully, and incrementally… do what is right – for their organizations, for the people around them, and for themselves – inconspicuously and without casualties” (1).
In his book, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing, author Joseph L. Badaracco invites us to recognize the long-term impact of quiet leadership. He quotes Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Albert Schweitzer, at the beginning of his book:
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. (3)
Badaracco invites us “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” (5).
The Danger of Oversimplification
So-called “ordinary” situations are often far more complex than they first appear. Quiet leaders recognize the complexity of common tasks. They know from experience that oversimplifying issues can have detrimental consequences to the accomplishment of a task and the well-being of others.
Quiet leaders are realists, not naïve optimists, moody pessimists or bitter cynics. As realists, they attempt to see the world as it really is – fluid, unpredictable, and messy. Quiet leaders refuse to embrace optimism, pessimism, and cynicism because these perspectives are too simplistic: “Dark-tinted glasses distort reality just as badly rose-tinted ones” (30).
Armed with realistic expectations, quiet leaders are equipped to compensate for any outcome – whether things ultimately turn out worse, better, or different than planned.
Sometimes things turn out worse than expected, and simple-looking problems turn out to be treacherous and complicated. This is why quiet leaders move carefully, put together contingency plans, and watch their backs. Sometimes things turn out much better than expected, so they are ready to seize opportunities. And, quite often, things simply turn out very differently from what anyone expects. Then they are ready to scramble and maneuver. (11)
The quiet leaders’ realistic expectations and preparedness for a wide variety of possible outcomes equips them to lead well. “[P]eople who intuitively sense the complexities, nuances, and uncertainties around them are likely to do a better job of navigating through them” (49).
The Reality of Mixed Motives
Motives – both our own and others’ – are very hard to determine. Motives are generally never completely pure or completely selfish. Usually, they are mixed – a combination of good and bad. “[P]eople act for all sorts of reasons, virtuous and vicious, clear and muddle-headed, sensible and nutty” (11).
Quiet leaders realize that their own motives are usually mixed – a combination of altruism, self-sacrifice, and self-interest. For this reason, using great leaders as models of leadership is unhelpful.
Conventional stories of leadership paint a different picture. They stress the purity of leaders’ motives, their unfaltering dedication to high aims and noble causes, and their willingness to challenge the system. At best, these stories provide inspiration and guidance. At worst, they offer greeting card sentimentality in place of realism about why people do what they do. They also tell people with mixed and complicated motives that they may be too selfish, divided, or confused to be “real” leaders. (35)
Because motives are often mixed, quiet leaders do not spend much time wrestling with their own motives or the motives of others. “Motives are typically complicated and only partially visible, so it’s easy for them to become the focus of endless speculation, interpretation, soul-searching, and navel-gazing” (51). Obviously, they do not purposely seek to perform with bad intentions, but they are constantly aware that their own motives are rarely, if ever, completely pure.
Even with the best possible motives, leadership is an all-too-human endeavor. Quiet leaders recognize that even when they do succeed in their endeavors “it is usually because of their mixed and complicated motives, not despite them” (35). This mix of altruism, concern, sacrifice, and self-interest is the fuel that sustains a leader. Unless a leader maintains his or her position of leadership, he or she will possess no capacity to actually lead. Leaders do not become leaders by accident. “They must look out for themselves, protect their positions, and stay at the table so they can continue to lead” (35). This fundamental reality underscores the complex weave of mixed motives that influence leadership. Because they “embrace complexity, in the world around them and inside themselves, [they] are more likely to succeed at difficult everyday challenges than individuals who try to airbrush away these stubborn realities” (35).
The Need to Bend the Rules
The vast complexity of situations that a leader oversees makes rules necessary. At the same time, the vast complexity of situations proves that rules alone cannot possibly take into account all the diverse circumstances that will arise in leadership. Quiet leaders understand that rules are necessary yet insufficient to encompass the complex realities of life. Quiet leaders, therefore, learn how to wisely bend the rules.
Quiet leaders do not think that rules are made to be broken. They see this notion for what it is: an unethical and shortsighted way to deal with serious problems. But they also know that following the rules sometimes leads to painful dilemmas and harmful results. Then quiet leaders try hard to find or create some room to maneuver, but they also do so within the boundaries set by the rules. In other words, they take the rules seriously, but they also look for wiggle room.
Quiet leaders do this because they understand that life seldom presents challenges and problems in the form of stark, either-or choices. (120)
Certainly, quiet leaders want to do the right thing, but the right thing is often not a strict adherence to rules or policies. Quiet leaders recognize that taking rules too seriously can be used as a means to evade responsibility. “Saying simply ‘These are the rules and I have to follow them’ can be a way of avoiding responsibility. Only moral bookkeepers, fitted out with green eyeshades, define ethics as a checklist of ‘do’s and don’ts.’ This may seem responsible, but sometimes it just isn’t” (123).
Doing the right thing is not a matter of simply following rules. Even worse, it is not bulldozing ahead in spite of the repercussions. In order for something to be “right” it must be done by “the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics). Achieving this balance in a complex world is certainly not easy. This need for balance, however, does expose overconfident, bull-headed, rule-keeping as heartless and spineless. The virtue of courage becomes the vice of recklessness when it is overdone. It is not courageous to simply stand for “the rules” simply because they are rules. Likewise, bending the rules does not demonstrate a lack of moral conviction. Instead, it evidences a genuine desire for loving engagement with real people in real situations – situations far too complex to be encased in the shell of rules and policies.
Slow, Incremental Steps Forward
Most change occurs not in a dramatic sudden sweep, but through a long series of slow, careful, incremental steps. Quiet leadership takes seriously the complexity of reality and the gradual process of change. Thus, quiet leaders do not drive their followers like a herd of cattle, but nudge them along with patient respect.
Quiet leaders do everything necessary to learn as much as possible about any situation before acting definitively. Only in this way do quiet leaders make strategic forward advances.
In fluid situations with many contingencies, the challenge often isn’t hitting the target but locating it. In these circumstances, successful leadership depends on learning, and learning involves taking the right small steps. By testing, probing, and experimenting, quiet leaders gradually get a sense of the flow of events, hazards to be avoided, and opportunities they can exploit. Instead of a problem-solution paradigm, they rely on an act-learn-act-learn approach. (128)
Though this style of leadership does not have the drama, flair, and glamour of that which we celebrate in great leaders, it is a style that best corresponds to the true nature of progress and complexity of people.
Quiet Virtues for Quiet Leaders
Every one of the qualities of quiet leadership can be abused. Mixed motives can become twisted. Delay can be an excuse for laziness. Respecting complexity can lead to endless and immobilizing analysis. Bending the rules can ultimately result in breaking the rules. For this reason, Badaracco calls our attention to three quiet virtues that help shape the qualities of quiet leadership – restraint, modesty, and tenacity. Because these are common everyday virtues, they can be performed by everyone.
Restraint. In every case study Badaracco presents, the quiet leader maintains his or her ability to lead by refusing to act on impulse. “They understand that immediate venting of thoughts and feelings usually resembles the Vietnam War tactic of bombing a village in order to save it. Quiet leaders don’t want to repress what they feel, but they do want to control and channel it as effectively as possible. They realize that taking a forceful stand on principle can be the easy way out of a problem or can make matters worse, so they restrain themselves” (171).
Modesty. Quiet leaders recognize their own inherent limitations. They are not trying to dramatically change the world. Instead, they are doing their best to make their tiny corner of the world a better place. They are not disrupted by the small scale of their efforts. “Quiet leaders realize that most things worth doing are, like traces on a beach, neither grand nor permanent. They recognize the fragility of the best-designed schemes” (175). Quiet leaders recognize the tremendous consequences that come from little things.
Tenacity. Because they are realists, quiet leaders do not give up easily. They accept the fact that they will not immediately see the result of their efforts. “[T]heir efforts resemble a long guerilla war rather than a glorious cavalry charge” (177). Quiet leaders understand the wisdom of the cliché: “The better is the enemy of the good.” For this reason, they “focus on what is reasonably attainable rather than what is ideal” (178). They have no illusions of grandeur or need to be recognized. They know that none of their “efforts will be recorded in history books or headlines. Yet all of them mattered. And each shows how – day after day, through countless, small, often unseen efforts – quiet leaders make the world a better place” (179).
Quiet Leadership in Christian Context
The philosophy of quiet leadership is remarkably easy to integrate with the biblical call to spiritual leadership in the body of Christ. Christian leaders are called to be good people, not business executives. They are to be known for their virtue, godliness, knowledge, compassion, humility, and love. They are not to aspire to “greatness” as the world perceives it.
There is no hierarchy of greatness in Christian leadership (see 1 Corinthians 1 – 3). Ideally, all Christian leaders are called to the simple tasks of sowing, planting, or reaping (and usually not all of these), depending on their ability and circumstances (1 Corinthians 3:4-9). This kind of labor demands commitment, discipline, and patient endurance (2 Timothy 2:3-7). Good Christian leaders are not trying to “change the world”; a more arrogant statement can hardly be made! Instead, they are trying to demonstrate faithful love in their corner of reality – the sphere of influence given them by God’s providential oversight (2 Corinthians 10:13-16).
The Danger of Oversimplification. Christian leaders, like quiet leaders, should be realists. We must be hopeful, but never naïve. We must recognize that reality is far too complex to support endless optimism. The reality of spiritual warfare, the tension of our “already/not yet” experience of salvation, the complication of living faithfully in a fallen world, the difficulty of simply loving the diverse individuals God puts in our life – all of these things expose the recklessness of oversimplifying life. Unrealistic expectations – expectations that do not harmonize with reality – are not only demoralizing, but positively destructive. If our followers are so caught up in trying to “change the world” that they do not positively impact those closest to them in their unique sphere of influence, then we have failed them as leaders.
The Reality of Mixed Motives. Christian leaders, like quiet leaders, should accept the reality of mixed motives. If nothing else, our belief in human sinfulness should push us in this direction. We, of all people, should be willing to admit that our motives are rarely – if ever – pure. Though we should never intentionally act with bad motives, we must be open to the possibility that our interests are shaded by our own selfish motives. The apostle Paul himself was willing to admit that he was not quite sure of his own motives (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Armed with an awareness of the reality of mixed motives, we should commit to maintaining a healthy suspicion of ourselves, while refusing to pretend to know the ultimate motives of others. One additional thought: The reality of mixed motives in Christian leadership is the reason that “sold out” language has to go. No one is “completely sold out” to Jesus. This language is misleading to those who recognize the reality of mixed motives and destructive to those who do not.
The Need to Bend the Rules. Christian leaders, like quiet leaders, should be willing to bend the rules. Unlike Judaism, Christianity does not locate the ultimate revelation of God in torah – the law. Following Jesus, Christians confess the necessity and insufficiency of the law. Christianity is about freedom and grace – not rules and polity (Galatians 5:1-14; Colossians 2:20-23). It emphasizes following God’s Spirit over strict adherence to a set of rules. Indeed, it recognizes that dogmatic commitment to law-keeping can actually be an obstacle to knowing God and loving others. Ultimately, Christianity states that all laws, rules, and policies, must be viewed in light of the great commandment: to love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-40). Any rule that gets in the way of patient, compassionate, committed love to others must be “bent” so that it corresponds to God’s greatest desire – that we love God and others. Christian leadership that refuses to do this – that values law more than people, rules more than relationships – is detrimental to the spiritual life and health of a community.
Slow, Incremental Steps Forward. Christian leaders, like quiet leaders, must see the value of gradual growth. Eugene Peterson calls this, “a long, slow obedience in the same direction.” This expectation of growth is much more faithful to the bulk of biblical revelation than the dramatic, glamorous, damn-the-torpedoes, take-no-prisoners style of leadership that has little patience for slow, deep growth. With rare exception, God’s work has always been plodding and meticulous. The gradual unfolding of God’s purposes in the Old Testament is evidence of God’s unhurried time-table.
Three Quiet Virtues. Christian leaders, like quiet leaders, must see value in the quiet virtues of restraint, modesty, and tenacity. Christian leaders should show restraint. Not everything that needs to be said is worth saying. We are not doing others any favor by always saying “whatever is on our minds.” It is not a virtue to “call ‘em as I see ‘em” to the disregard of the feelings of others (Proverbs 10:19; 12:18; 15:28; 18:2). The biblical call is to speak little (James 1:19; Proverbs 18:13), to speak carefully (Proverbs 15:28), and to speak only for the encouragement and building up of others (Ephesians 4:29).
Christian leaders should value modesty. Let’s face it: our attempts to “save the world” are often an expression of narcissistic fantasies that arise from delusions of self-importance. Language like this is inspiring and dramatic, but more often than not, it actually conceals a dangerous form of arrogance. Let’s change ourselves and positively influence the people in our sphere of influence before we make messianic predictions concerning our own self-importance. The world does not need us to spread dysfunction.
Christian leaders should evidence tenacity. We are not in a 100-yard dash; we are running a marathon. Our goal is not to achieve personal glory as we race past the finish line in record time; our goal is to bring all the people that God has put in our lives with us. Many are winded, some disabled, some confused, some even heading in the wrong way altogether. The test of our leadership will not be how quickly we accomplished our task; the test will be how faithfully, compassionately, and lovingly we treat all those under our care.
One common cliché often heard in Christian circles is “The good is the enemy of the best.” We must reverse this. Not everything or everyone can be “the best.” Life is far too complicated to assign categories like this to most decisions. For this reason, I prefer Badaracco’s cliché, “The better is the enemy of the good.” We will fail to lead well if we only pursue the best. For the most part, the best is an unrealizable ideal that will not likely be achieved in our lifetime. (And even if it is, it will only be momentary.)
We must settle for being “good” rather than “great.” Though rarely celebrated, it is the quiet leaders of this world who effect the most change. “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” (2).
God’s kingdom is bigger than any leader and any local church – indeed, it is bigger and greater than the universal church. The specific challenges we have are simply a small part – a very small part! – of what God is actually accomplishing in this world. If we cannot be satisfied with this, we demonstrate hubris rather than humility. And without humility, we have no place leading God’s people.
It helps, now and then, to step
back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it's even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection; no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something and do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it's a beginning - a step along the way.
It's an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the result.
But that's the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are the workers, not master builders.
We are the ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own. Amen.
-- Archbishop Oscar Romero
© Richard J. Vincent, 2005