Published on Mon, 26/03/2018 - 16:23
Mary Carpenter
Thresholds notepads

Thoughts on Quiet Leadership

I’ve always been a quiet kind of person; I’m softly spoken and generally fairly reserved, and I tend to prefer thinking something through by myself to brainstorming in a group.

At times in my career as a Government lawyer, I’ve worried that being quiet isn’t compatible with being successful or with being an effective leader. I’ve seen quietness as a problem that I need to solve; I’ve told myself that I need to shift several places along the introvert-extrovert spectrum in order to succeed, and have felt that I should aim to become more like those outgoing people who are chatty and confident and seem to enjoy being at the centre of attention.

The problem of course is that it’s not really possible for me to change my personality. If I try and force myself to be more outgoing and to mimic my extroverted colleagues then that’s bound to fail. I would feel weird and uncomfortable, and it would probably be weird and uncomfortable for my colleagues as well!

As part of the Crossing Thresholds programme, I had an excellent mentor who helped me to realise that leadership has to be authentic, and that means finding a model of quiet leadership rather than trying to fit the stereotype of the bombastic, outgoing leader. My mentor gave me the confidence to feel that I could be both quiet and a good leader; that the two weren’t incompatible. She helped me arrange work shadowing with a senior lawyer who she described as a good ‘quietly confident’ role model. The thing that struck me most from that shadowing was observing a (somewhat chaotic) meeting; the ‘quietly confident’ lawyer didn’t say much for most of the meeting but towards the end she identified the key issues incredibly precisely and succinctly. This made me reflect on some of the positive qualities that can come with being quiet.

Another key inspiration for me has been the book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ by Susan Cain (she also has a great TED talk on the subject). Cain argues that the modern world is often geared too much towards valuing extroversion, and suggests that we should re-examine the value that introverts can provide to an organisation and to society more broadly.

Once I started to think about quiet leadership, and to talk to others, the more quiet leaders I found. I realised that many of the colleagues and senior leaders who I admired most would describe themselves as introverts, and many of those who were more extroverted said how much they value the qualities that introverted colleagues can bring to a team.

So what are those qualities? Quiet leaders are often good at listening, and this can help to create an environment where colleagues feel empowered to speak up and offer suggestions, in the confidence that they will be listened to. Quiet leaders are often thoughtful and reflective, concentrating on the task at hand and taking their time to reach a view, rather than jumping to conclusions. They will speak when they have something important to add, rather than speaking for the sake of it. Each of these can be really valuable qualities.

This is not to say that us introverts should stay within our comfort zones and never stretch ourselves to be more outgoing. There will be situations where it is important to speak up where we might naturally prefer to stay silent, or to chat to strangers even where it feels uncomfortable. But we should also reflect on and value the specific qualities that may come with a quiet disposition.