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Quiet Leadership

Quiet Leadership

We only need to look at the hundreds of books on the subject every year to see that what best characterizes “leadership” or offers the most attractive type of approach is extremely hard to pin down. There are books which describe Autocratic leadership, Charismatic leadership, Dynamic leadership, Situational Leadership, Transactional leadership, Transformational leadership, Visionary leadership, and many others. What all of these approaches have in common is that the leader is a key catalyst for change, often providing a clear and confident  initiating view of what the current issues or problems may be and then directly seeking to shape strategy and execution efforts of a team of people or followers in pursuing a particular future course of action.  Although it is a relative newcomer to overall leadership theory, “Quiet leadership” presents a very different approach to this.

Quiet leadership suggests that any individual in a supervisory or people management role should not be seeking to give people answers or solutions or otherwise shape what the future should look like, but rather “guide” and “steer” people to think more deeply and come up with their own ideas on what should be done.  In other words, quiet leaders tend to work more invisibly and behind-the-scenes, working on creating a climate in which the people being led evolve their own strategies and ways of going forward.

Although quiet leadership, as an overall approach evolved out of the work of several leadership development experts in the last decade or so,  two books have described the field (albeit in slightly different ways). The first is Joseph Badarracco’s “Leading Quietly” first published in 2002. The second is David Rock’s “Quiet Leadership” published in 2007. It is therefore useful to briefly summarize what both these books have to say in order to get a rounded view on what this approach is all about.

Badarocco’s Leading Quietly

Joseph Badaracco’s book was written as a result of his extensive research into many leaders in the field and their relative success (in terms of how this was seen by those who were led and it terms of tangible results such as smooth transitions or organizational goals achieved).   As a result of this research, Badaracco suggests that leadership qualities that result in long-term success doesn’t revolve around personal charisma and sheer strength of personality, but are more directly related to quiet perseverance, tenacity and emotional intelligence, as well as a willingness to “hasten slowly” rather than to rush decisions. He also suggests that instead of looking for or even prescribing “one best way” to solve problems, quiet leaders look for ways to live with problems for longer, and to discuss what might be a number of possible attainable solutions that anyone can put forward with sufficient thought or reflection (that a whole group of people can then assess). For Badaracco then, quiet leaders model patience, restraint, modesty and flexibility.  The theory of quiet leadership as Badaracco describes it therefore seeks to shift the focus from strength of leadership vision and personal charisma to the small tasks that leaders need to perform for their teams and the relationships they need to forge, to accomplish the desired goals. In summary then, for Badarrocco, Quiet leaders:

  1. Buy time.
  2. Drill down into the political and technical elements of the problems they face.
  3. Invest their political capital wisely.
  4. Nudge, test, and escalate gradually.
  5. Find ways, when necessary, to bend the rules.
  6. View compromise as a high form of leadership and creativity.

Rock’s Quiet leadership

David Rock’s book was published 5 years later than Badarocco’s and adds some new insights. In particular, Rock’s book is built around six core skills as follows. He suggests that Quiet leaders:

  1. Spend more time “thinking about thinking”. This means leaving people to their own devices more often, avoiding telling people what to do, focusing on possible solutions (not problems), stretching and challenging individuals, concentrating on what people are doing well and having a clear process for every conversation (process before content). What Rock is essentially getting at here is that Quiet leaders seek to improve the quality of thinking of people around them-literally trying to improve the way follower’s brains process information. He suggests that when leaders invest time in improving others’ thinking it is one of the fastest ways to improve performance.
  2. Ask lots of questions about thinking (including his/her own) and listen for potential. The essence of this step according to Rock is to hold back on presenting a view of what should be done and instead to keep asking questions, especially when they relate to how deeply or creatively individuals may have thought about the issue or the problem at hand. It is this effort that will often release the energy within individuals.
  3. Speak with a quiet intent-are succinct, specific and generous. Rock suggests that decades of academic research on leadership tells us that more outgoing people (often called extraverts) make the best leaders-those who confidently and aggressively speak out, give orders, make bold plans and are the center of attention. However, he suggests that the modern workplace may now be more conducive to a more reserved leadership style.  This style is less aggressive, commanding and prone to make sweeping statements, but instead has a calm intent, a specificity and succinctness to words and allows lots of input.
  4. “Dance towards insight” by using carefully thought through exploratory questions.  Rock suggests that while great leaders are the ones that are often expected to come up with unique or creative insights about what should be done, the best insights both take time and many questions of the whole team to hone it-hence it is more like a “dance” or moving partnership between leader and everyone in his or her team.
  5. Create new thinking by reflecting longer and more deeply and tapping into everyone’s inner energy.  Returning once again somewhat to step one, Rock advocates that the quiet leader has more patience and takes longer to reflect (while encouraging others to do the same).  Everyone is then empowered to make as much input as they are capable of giving.
  6. Follow up with people using the FEELING model (Facts, Emotions, Encouragement, Learning, Implications and New Goals).  In Rock’s model, the quiet leader is very much a facilitator or constant inter-actor with all his or her team members, dealing with individuals on a one-to-one level with openness and sensitivity. Rock further suggests that such leaders: think first and talk later. They consider what others have to say, then reflect and then respond; focus on depth not superficiality. They like to dig deeply into issues and ideas before considering new ones; like meaningful rather than superficial conversations, and they exude calm. In times of crisis in particular, they project quiet reassuring confidence.

In combination, the six steps suggested by Rock have much similarity and overlap with the action learning approach suggested by Dr. Reg Revans fifty years earlier. In both cases, leaders are very much seen as calm and questioning facilitators within the team, who patiently wait for individual insight and energy to suggest the best way forward. Team members are then more engaged and motivated to perform and are more likely to be successful than with an imposed solution from above.


Most leadership theory and the popular models that have evolved in the last few decades have stressed that charismatic, catalytic and push-oriented leaders are the most successfully. Quiet leadership proposes an alternative view in which leaders are better served to take a more behind-the-scenes, question-centered and pull-oriented approach. In so doing a leader can ask more questions, get better possible answers or future courses of action and release greater energy and overall contribution from team members. This may well become even more important as many workplaces become populated by better educated, and more knowledge-focused workers, who operate independently or in self-managed teams. Generation Y employees, for example (who are already starting to occupy leadership roles) , generally don’t see themselves as passive employees waiting for orders nor do they want to be controlled by an commanding leader who makes most of the decisions or who rides rough-shod over their input or opinions. Quiet leadership is therefore an approach we should take very seriously.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. John AinsleyApril 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    I was introduced to David Rocks Quiet Leadership whilst working with Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and it is one of the most powerful leadership coaching tools I have ever experienced. The process is weird to begin with but works well on a face to face basis or even by teleconference. The dance of insight is a moment of magic to see how people work out their issues through changing the way they think about things.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerJune 3, 2013 at 3:24 pmAuthor

      Thanks for the insight John-I agree this needs to be tried in practice rather than in theory to see its real benefit.

  2. Eleanor GormanJune 22, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Very interesting article. I believe I fit a bit more into this ‘quiet’ leadership style because of my own personality and I’ve seen it work. However, I do think at different times either is needed. Quiet leadership style can mean needing more time to take action. Sometimes time is of the essence or more persuasion/motivation is needed. However, I do think quiet leadership can lead to greater buy-in which in the long term, is helpful to reaching goals and keeping teams motivated.

  3. Eugene FramMay 2, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    Jon: What you describe is what a large portion of college graduates fail to gain in college — the ability to think critically. See “Academically Adrift,” and its followup report — 2014. Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is embarking on a program to have critical thinking pedagogues used throughout all curricula, so that all its graduates will begin to think critically in a reflexive manner. Please contact me if you want more details:


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Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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