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.

The One Career Skill You Need NOW

Brand-micsA few years back the company I worked for made a difficult hiring decision. They chose not to hire a qualified candidate for a hard-to-fill position because of something they found on the internet. I don’t know the details of what they found, but I do know that it was something this candidate had personally posted and it was concerning enough that it resulted in a rescinded job offer.

That was over ten years ago. During a time when the world of personal expression on the World Wide Web was new and mostly unexplored. When researching job candidates online was mostly unheard of.

Cut to today, a time when not having an online presence in some form or fashion – be it through Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, and the list goes on – is atypical. And a time when prospective employers “Google” candidates on a regular basis to learn things about them that the standard resume and cover letter won’t reveal.

I know this because I’ve done it. And I know colleagues who have done it. Also, it is a two-way street. I know candidates who looked me up before submitting their cover letter and resume to me. In one particular case that tactic backfired because their cover letter said way too much about me and not enough about them. A little stalker-ish really. [Sidebar: please don’t do that…]

The reality is that today we’re living life online. Information is readily available to anyone with a computer and a search field, and companies are taking full advantage of it in their talent acquisition practices. Here we are – smack in the middle of the Information Age. But sadly many of us forget or are oblivious to this fact and the growing reality that what we do in the virtual world bleeds into our physical world…and our careers.

Your CareerFor example, a colleague recently relayed a concern about a friend’s daughter who had just turned 21 and celebrated her birthday as many newly minted 21-year-olds do: she drank and drank and posted photos of her drinking, as well as the results thereof, online.

This particular 21-year-old wants to be a school teacher. My colleague is concerned, and I don’t blame him, that a prospective employer will run across these photos and think twice about hiring her. And should that 21-year old be surprised?

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should live perfect lives and not do the normal things that humans do. Certainly not. But what I am suggesting is that we accept the reality that when the time comes to enter (or transition within) the workforce everything we post online affects our career prospects as well as our career longevity.

So, what do we do about it? What’s the solution? Simple. Manage your online presence.

Social Media Self-Management is the new Career Skill that you need right now. Here are three easy questions to ask that’ll put you on the path to success:

  1. Is my email address professional or a little too personal?
    • I’ll admit it, my first email address was Do you see all the things that are wrong with this? I’ve also been the recipient of resumes from addresses like Good one.
    • Want something professional? Try [firstname][lastname]@[].
    • Same goes for any username through which you plan to communicate with an employer. Take a look at your Twitter handle, and more.
  2. Do my status updates mean something or am I a vaguebooker?
    • Vaguebooking is, sadly, a popular form of online expression. As defined by it means “an intentionally vague Facebook status update, that prompts friends to ask what’s going on, or is possibly a cry for help.”  For example: “wondering if it is all worth it” or “thinking that was a bad idea.”
    • The posts that add the most value are those that send a clear message, are informational, and keep it positive. Speaking of which, you should also avoid “hatebooking.” No one likes a hater.
    • vaguebookingThese ideas also apply to blogging, comments, and any other virtual place where you can leave your digital opinions.
  3. Are my photos pleasing or off-putting?
    • This one is easy. Keep your photos PG, or at the very least PG-13.
    • You don’t have to be buttoned-up and stuffy; in fact keeping it light and fun is good. We “professional types” also like to have fun…but those of us who are concerned with our professional images understand balance and moderation. No need for extremes.
    • Same goes for videos.

Today we live life out loud and online. That’s the new normal. But because someday we want someone to hire us, we need to be smart about how we do it. In the end, I’m just saying please pay attention. For your own good. Think twice before posting something you’ll later regret or that may make the difference between an offer letter and a rejection letter.

In closing, I know a student who once made a difficult, but very wise decision. He deleted his long-standing and popular Facebook account and started up a new one. Why? Because he looked at his account through the lens of a prospective employer and recognized that even he wouldn’t hire him. He knew he needed a restart. That was a wise Social Media Self-Management move. Companies have Social Media Strategies. Why shouldn’t you?

Did I miss any good tips? Leave your ideas below.


9 Reasons I Loved This Semester

Learning Leaders

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other” ~JFK

Lead and learn

A few months ago, forty-six students entered my classroom with the hopes of beginning, continuing, or reigniting their journeys to be successful leaders in life and in business.  

Well, actually… most of them were probably just hoping to get an A.  But, now that the semester is over, I can look back and confidently say they were truly seeking personal growth and development in addition to a good grade.

Here’s nine reasons why:

Quotable Quotables

This spontaneous thought shared by Kathleen came when discussing the difference between managers and leaders:

“Managers make me work. Leaders make me WANT to work.”

That says it all.

Great Debates

When asked to explore key questions about leadership, some passionate debates ensued:

  • Are white lies okay in business?
  • Is charisma an essential leadership trait?
  • And my favorite debate to watch -> Which is more effective? Fear-based or Love-Based Motivation?

Drawn to Leadership

Like many before us, at multiple points throughout the semester we considered the traits and characteristics that made leaders most effective.  At one point we tried to draw the “perfect leader.”  Of course, we failed.  As expected, we agreed there is no “perfect leader.”

Leading in the Dark


Students were assigned to teams and challenged to deliver creative presentations that highlighted an example of leadership in action, using one or more theories from our textbook.

Norman, Shelby, Brian, Maria, and Michelle demonstrated the technique called Appreciative Inquiry with a skit where they portrayed people offering their opinions about the ideas and inventions of various eras.

The best part?  Half of the skit was in the dark.

Animal Instincts

While discussing motivational theories, it was suggested by Nick that leading humans through positive reinforcement was much like the way we train dogs.

I simply couldn’t disagree.

Lollipop Moments

One of our more inspirational and memorable discussions came after we watched this TED Talks video of Drew Dudley on everyday leadership and lollipops.

Reciprocity At Its Finest

Probably my favorite topic to cover is Influence and Persuasion.  We discussed the various shortcuts and techniques that one can use to influence others in an ethical and positive way.  To add some humor to the discussion, Madisyn offered up this video from the comedy team, Key and Peele.

Be My Mentor

light-bulb-plant-resized-600Near the end of the semester, I invited four local leaders to visit our class to answer the students’ questions about what it is really like to be a leader.  Some highlights of the many golden nuggets of leadership offered by Melissa, Rad, Chuck, and Sean:

  • Chuck encouraged everyone to go home happy everyday and explained that it is easier and more important to get an idea out of someone than it is to put it in them.
  • Rad stressed the importance of knowing your values and then letting those values inform your decisions.
  • Melissa reminded us how difficult it can be to transition from peer to boss.  Then she told us its worth it.
  • Get a mentor.  Sean told the students to pick a mentor and ask them if they want the job.  The worst they could do is say “no.” Shortly after the panel discussion, Eric tried it and it worked.

Making The Difference

lead-learnFinally, I was excited to see so many of these students not only make the choice to become leaders in life and business, but decide that they could become leaders.

Many admitted that at one time they felt “leadership was a gift given to a chosen few,” to quote Paul, but throughout the semester they came to realize that everyone has what it takes.

I also watched students apply, successfully, what they had learned about leadership to real life situations, which resulted in them making an immediate and tangible difference for themselves and others.

That was the best part of all.

Thank you students for a great semester!

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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!