Leading Quietly: A book review by Bob Morris

Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing
Joseph L. Badaracco
Harvard Business Review Press (2002)

The potential power and impact of “small and obscure deeds”

Note: I just re-read it and all that Joseph Badaracco affirms is even more impirtant today than it was when his business classic first appeared.

* * *

As you may already know, Jim Collins and his associates committed more than 15,000 hours to rigorous research on the 15-year performance record of 1,435 companies (that had appeared on the Fortune 500 list) as candidates for designation as “good-to-great.” They then shared what they learned in a book. One of the revelations which surprised me most was that what they call “Level 5 Leadership” invalidates conventional wisdom concerning the so-called “charismatic” CEO. Please see pages 17-40 as well as pages 72-73 in Good to Great.

After four years of his own rigorous research, Joseph Badaracco seems to have arrived at many of the same conclusions that Collins and his associates did. For example, that the most effective leaders are passionate about the organizations they lead but humble with respect to success in their own careers; that they are relentless in the pursuit of what Collins calls Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) but, meanwhile, manifest impeccable personal as well as professional integrity; and finally, that they are (in Badaracco’s words) “quiet leaders because their modesty and restraint are in large measure responsible for their impressive achievements.”

Badaracco goes on to note that because 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.” Invoking metaphors, I presume to suggest that the so-called “charismatic leader” resembles a Roman candle or perhaps a single sparkler whereas the “Level 5 Leader,” the Quiet Leader,” resembles a Bunsen burner.

Navy fliers training for duty aboard aircraft carriers are told, “There are no old, bold pilots.” Badaracco correctly asserts that preparation, caution, care, and attention to detail are usually the best approach to everyday challenges. “What usually matters are careful, thoughtful, practical efforts by people working far from the limelight.”

How long might it take to achieve a BHAG? Collins suggests ten to 30 years…”or more.” The leadership required over such an extended period of time (leadership which includes but is not limited to the C-suite) reflects a specific 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.” Moreover, Badaracco adds, “…in a small way, quiet leadership is also an act of faith: an expression of confidence in the ultimate force of what [Albert] Schweitzer called ‘small and obscure deeds.'”

The material in this brilliant book is carefully organized within nine chapters whose titles correctly suggest their respective focal points. For example, in Chapter Eight (“Nudge, Test, and Escalate Gradually”), Badaracco suggests that quiet leaders “prefer more cautious, modest ways of thinking and acting. Instead of hunting confidently for the [in italics] right answer, they concentrate on finding the right ways to to eventually get sound, workable answers.”

For them, unlike those who are impulsive and flamboyant, “leadership is a process, often a long and oblique one, not a single or courageous event.” They are practical but NOT expedient de4cision-makers. They focus on what is reasonably attainable rather than on what is ideal and, therefore, almost never attainable. They “buy a little time” (the title of Chapter Three) inorder to drill down deeper to reveal the technical and political elements of the questions to be answered and the problems to be solved. They have a bias for action but only after sufficient (albeit imperfect) preparation. But they have a sense of urgency when that is necessary and, more to the point, because others respect and trust them, they embrace the same sense of urgency.

Their core values are non-negotiable even as they view compromise as being essential to consensus. The “eloquence” of such women and men is expressed by what they and their associates accomplish together each day, to be sure, but also year after year.

Joseph Badaracco includes an especially apt quotation in his Introduction. It is an excerpt from Schweitzer’s autobiography, Out of My Life and Thought, and provides what I consider to be an appropriate conclusion to this review:

“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.”


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