Shh. I’m Leading.

MLKWhen we conjure up mental images of leaders we often think of those who are in front of a crowd. Demanding to be heard. Like Martin Luther King, Jr and his inspirational I have a Dream speech. Or Steve Jobs and his iconic Apple Inc. product launches.

But what about the quiet leader? Is that an oxymoron, or can the words quiet and leader, in fact, occupy the same space? I think they can. But, what does it mean to be a leader who is quiet? And what’s to gain?

This is a question I pondered recently when I found myself defining leadership using the word quiet. My friends at the e.MILE People Development Magazine have an ongoing collaboration called The ABC of Leadership, where contributors are asked to describe leadership using all twenty-six letters in the alphabet. [You can find it here.] I used the letter Q and offered this:

Quiet: An effective leader removes all distractions, both physical and emotional, in order to listen to others and themself. Doing so enables clarity, inspiration, and motivation.

I think I had quiet on the mind because at the time I was wanting space, some room to think and ponder. To plan. To create. My leadership job was hectic, full of people needing things around every physical and virtual corner. It was, in a word, loud. I wanted nothing more than to shout “shh, I’m trying to lead.”

Of course, I didn’t. Because that would have been rude and maybe a little confusing…

Shhh-Chalkboard-Logo-1024x819But, why was my desire for solitude so strong? Before you answer that and box me into a corner, let me explain that I don’t fancy myself an introvert. But, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that because I know that many of us associate introversion with the desire for quiet time. And rightfully so. It is generally accepted that introverts seek out and greatly value their quiet time. (I know because I asked a few). But, why?

Well, in my experience, your classic introvert has a very rich internal life, one they happily lean into when things are quiet. They take super advantage of that time to think, create, strategize, dream.

I call this super secret skill “shh time”, though it isn’t such a secret to our introverted friends. They know all about it. They get it.

In my opinion, the best leaders take advantage of “shh time” regardless of their intra-or extro-verted preferences. Let’s face it, leaders can’t be out in front one hundred percent of the time. Those who are may not be the most effective at leading. And, also, they may be a little exhausted.

What do leaders get from a little “shh time”?  When we can eliminate the physical and emotional distractions it allows us to do two things:

1. Tune In to Ourselves

How? Make purposeful time in your day for inward reflection. Close your door. Block your calendar. Walk your dog. Take a long drive in your car. Whatever works for you, just shut things off and out and see what happens. You may achieve a little self-awareness and understanding and discover some previously undiscovered insights. Most of all, you may experience that unfamiliar, yet oh so sweet, feeling of calm.

Keep quiet and people will think you a philosopher.

~ Latin Proverb

In quiet places, reason abounds.

~ Adlai Stevenson

2. Tune In to Others

listen1How? When having conversations with others, put down or silence your phone, turn off your computer, make eye contact. Really stop. Really look. And really listen.

Of course, that part isn’t always easy. Trust me, I know. The hard part is fending off that pesky thought-bubble that is quickly filling with questions and comments that must be shared at all costs! You can’t stop the bubble from forming; that’s involuntary. But you can pop it. That’s an active choice. So, pop that bubble and give others your heart and your undivided attention.

I’m exhausted from not talking.

– Sam Goldwyn

Being quiet with others can also be about absence. Meaning, by being silent it allows others the opportunity to explore and accelerate their own talents. Maybe they will trust their instincts and solve a problem or two all on their own.

No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit for doing it.

~Andrew Carnegie

mlk-in-birmingham-jailEven though we tend to remember great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Jobs in times when they were out in front, we should try to picture them when they were behind the scenes being very very quiet. I’m just sure it was in those “shh times” when the true magic of their leadership happened.

When was the last time you led quietly? Try it. See what happens.

3 Secrets of Great Leadership in 3 Seconds


If you had only 3 seconds to share the best advice on leadership, what would that be?

Recently, I had the honor of participating on an alumni panel at the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA). This was my chance to give back, by sharing some advice with the incoming students of the various graduate programs offered by the business school.

Standing in front of a full room of future M-somethings, I answered questions about why I pursued an MBA, how I made the most of the program, and how my degree prepared me for the many challenges along my career journey.

Most of these questions were shared with me in advance, so that means I had prep time to craft what I hoped would be thoughtful answers.  Half way into it, I thought things were going well.

But then – the discussion moderator Peter threw the panel members a curve-ball in the form of an impromptu question for each of us. What was he thinking?! There’s nothing quite like a little improvisation in front of a few dozen eager graduate students, with their eyes locked on your position.

Leaving me very little time to produce a response, Peter asked, “Alan, what advice do you have for aspiring leaders?” Peter directed this question at me in particular, because he knows that I spend a lot of my time thinking about, talking about, and teaching leadership to both students in an academic environment and business leaders in a corporate setting. Surely I would have a great answer, right!?

I jokingly responded, “That’s a great question, Peter. Do we have an hour to really dig into it?” I hoped it was not obvious to the audience that I was only buying time with this initial response while I thought up my real answer.   Peter said, “I’ll give you two minutes.” This was serious business.

Fortunately, everyone laughed. When that died down, they stared at me, waiting for an answer. My mind churned quickly.

In three seconds, here’s what I came up with:

  1. Be the best follower you can be
  2. Be authentic
  3. Learn how to get work done through others

I elaborated:

1.  To be a great leader, one must first be a great follower.   I say this because I believe many of the qualities that are desirable in a leader are the very same qualities we look for in our followers.  So, there is a thin line separating the two, and if you can’t be a great follower, you may ultimately struggle as a leader.

Check out my post, Follow by Example, for more of my thoughts on what it takes to be an effective follower, and why I think they’re important.

2.  I’ve seen new leaders try to act like some ideal image of a leader they have in their minds. But what happens is they become robotic or hollow in their attempts to be something or someone they are not.  And people end up seeing right through it. On the other hand, when leadership comes from an honest place, informed by your unique self, it tends to result in the sort of authenticity that inspires people to act.

Check out my post, Leadership Takes the Stage, to explore five techniques for ‘being a leader,’ not just ‘acting’ like one.

3.  We often get promoted into leadership positions because we’re good at being individual contributors. Then when things get tough as the leader, we have a tendency to fall back into our comfort zones and do the very same things that got us promoted in the first place. But that’s not our jobs anymore, and the unfortunate result is twofold: One, we’re not doing our new job. Two, we’re preventing other people from doing theirs. Our new leadership job is to direct, guide, coach, mentor, and develop others. Yes, we still have to get the work done, but we need to do it through others. And when we do that, we get to watch them succeed, and we celebrate their many accomplishments.

Check out my post, Ish Happens, for other signs that we may not be fulfilling our true leadership roles.

So those are my 3 secrets to great leadership in 3 seconds. I know these aren’t the only secrets out there, and they may even hardly qualify as secrets. In the end, though, I think it is a pretty good list, because these are important reminders for all leaders, new and experienced.

The M-somethings seemed to like it and that’s what matters for now.

Ready to give your own 3-second advice on leadership? Time yourself, write them down, and share.

Three, two, one…go!

ish happens

Half-full or half-emptyish.

This is the word we use when something is stuck between being and not being. Between is and is not.

For example, we might say, “that shirt is red-ish.” Or, “I’m feeling sick-ish.” And sometimes, “the weather is a bit warm-ish.”

Describing things as ish is handy, because it helps us avoid committing when we’re not quite ready. And when it is used in the course of regular conversation, we tend to accept this half-way point as okay, and we carry on. We typically do not challenge convenient ish-isms.

But when is being ish not okay? What about in leadership? Is being leader-ish okay, not okay, or maybe okay-ish?

Read my Lead Change Group post, Leader-ish: When You’re Not Quite a Leader, to find out if you’re being a leader, or just leader-ish.

Stage Door to Leadership

Stage DoorIn an empty theater, an actor stands on the stage overlooking a row of men and women seated in the audience.   These are the decision makers who will decide if he is cast in the play.  The director.  The choreographer.  The producers.

The actor is on the last phase of what has been a grueling and lengthy audition process.  First, was the song.  Second, the dance.  Third, a prepared monologue.  And now, a cold reading from the play in which he wishes to be cast.  He desperately wants the part.  This is the role he’s prepared for, and he knows he can do it.  And he thinks he’s proving it moment by moment, with a live demonstration of his talent.

Across town, a woman sits at a table in a narrow and lush boardroom.  She faces a long row of men and women seated directly across from her.  These are the decision makers of the company for which she anxiously wants to work.  The Senior Vice Presidents of Operations, Finance, and Human Resources, and the CEO.  This is the last of many interviews spread out over the previous weeks.  She desperately wants this job.  This is the role she’s prepared for, and she knows she can do it.  And she thinks she’s convincing them moment by moment, with artfully crafted answers to their challenging and probing questions.

Which group of decision makers is likely to make a good hiring decision?  The theater producers or the business executives?

First, let’s consider the theater producers.  Typically, when actors want a part in a play, they audition.  This entails a live demonstration of their skills.  The audition process enables the director to assess the actor’s performance-ability.  It helps them answer the simple questions “Can they do this part?” and “Can they get the results we need?”

In the end, those who can’t play the part, are not cast.  Those who can, are.  This is a must, considering the stakes: Audience response. Critics reviews. Box office numbers. Profit.

What actors do not do as part of this process is an interview. They don’t talk about their ability to act. Instead, they act. Right there. In front of people. With the pressure on.

Now, let’s consider the business executives.  Typically, when an individual aspires to a new leadership role in an organization, the go-to decision-making strategy is an interview, where both the hiring manager and the applicant engage in multiple rounds of questions and answers.  In most cases, each must rely on the other’s question-asking and question-answering abilities.  A great deal of trust is extended that the right questions are being asked, and that the answers are a true and complete representation of reality.  Add to that a side helping of instinct, and you have a recipe for chance.

This hiring process is a risky endeavor, and the same stakes apply as in the theater example: Employee engagement.  Customer reviews.  Revenue.  Profit.

But, the cold hard truth is that little performance proof is offered in this standard approach to hiring leaders.  What’s the track record on accurately predicting an individual’s performance-ability solely based on a series of questions and answers?  Not great.

With such high stakes, why do we take such an incomplete approach to hiring leaders?  And, as aspiring leaders, why do we allow ourselves to rely on this imperfect assessment process?

What if, instead, we auditioned for our leadership positions?  What would that look like?  And what results would we achieve?  How do we set the stage for a leadership audition?  Absent a stage, a script, and a piano, what can the aspiring leader do?

Try this.

Get out there and perform

Aspiring actors act.  Those who truly want to make it in the theater, keep working.  They seek smaller, local productions until bigger opportunities come around.  This builds experience, sharpens their skills, and gives potential casting directors the opportunity to see them in action.

Aspiring leaders lead.  Those who truly want to make it in leadership, seek leadership roles on special project teams, committees, boards, etc., both inside or outside their organization.  This builds experience, sharpens skills, gives potential hiring managers opportunities to see them in action.

Both settings also offer a safe place to grow.  First time actors and leaders will make mistakes.  These smaller, lower-stakes environments are great training grounds for trying new things and sharpening skills.  So, when the actor/leader is discovered, they’ll be ready.

Get a fan club

Aside from the potential exposure to future casting directors and producers generated by staying on the stage, actors also build a reputation and a fan club.  Producers want actors who’ll bring an audience.  Some actors get cast on their reputations alone.

But, fans aren’t generated only by being on stage.  The performances have to be good, and the actors have to give the fans what they want: time and attention.  Many an actor’s reputation has been hurt by ignoring the fans who want their autographs at the stage door.

In a business setting, the fan club is made of up people who will happily serve as advocates, champions, and referrals, when given the opportunity to do so.  Better than selling ourselves in an interview, is someone else doing the hard work of touting our value to the people in their networks.  Hiring managers want known commodities, not random names on resumes.

In a business setting, fans are created by both, doing good work, and by helping others.  An aspiring leader doesn’t only help themselves.  They volunteer their time and attention to the causes of others.  Be an advocate and champion first, and watch the fan club grow.

– –

In closing, walking through the Leadership Stage Door takes more than an interview.  It takes seeking and seizing opportunities to lead, and generating a great leadership reputation, by doing great work and helping others.

Have you ever auditioned for a leadership position?  If so, what did that look like?