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What is “silent leadership” and can it work for you?

Apr 30, 2016 | Business and Leadership Skills

This article appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East and can also be viewed here.

“Silent” is perhaps the last word you would expect to be associated with a successful leader. The business world is full of stories of bold, brash CEOs – from Henry Ford right through to Steve Jobs – running companies with an iron fist and getting results through high-pressure tactics and a sizeable ruthless streak.

While this approach may make for good anecdotes – and in the right circumstances will certainly bring results – there is another style of management that doesn’t hit the headlines as often, and that is silent leadership.

Like most business skills, silent leadership can be learnt, but it is also a philosophy that tends to lend itself to more placid, introverted people – in much the same way that extroverts will lean towards a more in-your-face style.

Equally, the success of a silent leadership style depends somewhat on the culture of your workplace and the personality of your employees. The reality is that silent leadership won’t work for everyone in every business situation.

But, in the modern workplace – where people are less inclined to blindly follow orders – there is much that can be learned from this more introverted approach to management. So let’s take a look at just what this is, whether it’s for you, and how to ultimately apply it.

What is silent leadership?

Let’s make one thing clear – there’s nothing shy or meek about silent leaders. These leadership types are just as powerful and effective as their more outspoken counterparts. However, silent leaders exercise power through actions rather than words.

At the heart of it is a quiet confidence rather than arrogance or ego, and a tendency to want to solve problems through collaboration, logical thought and encouragement rather than through aggression or dominance. Silent leaders are compassionate, understanding, open and approachable and – most importantly – they command their team through earned respect rather than force of character.

There are several key characteristics of the silent leadership style. Again, these traits will come naturally to some more than others, but all can be learnt.

For starters, to be a silent leader you must learn to listen – and take on board what is being said. “My way or the highway” is the absolute antithesis of silent leadership, and while they still make the final decision, silent leaders actively encourage and consider the points of view of their team first. As a result of this approach, silent leaders rarely rush into a decision too quickly. In fact, very often they look to buy time and delay a decision where possible to ensure they have all the information required to make the best possible judgement.

Another key to silent leadership and one that I am a big fan of is leading by example. Silent leaders very rarely ask a team member to do something that they would not do themselves. Nor do they allow themselves to cut corners – be it not following process or affording themselves extra perks of the job. They follow the same company policies and guidelines as the rest of the team.

And I will note here that it is these two traits of leading by example and playing by the same rules which indicate to me how some people are simply born to be effective silent leaders and others are quite unable to be that kind of leader.

Because there is a certain moral empathy and unselfishness that defines these particular qualities, and such qualities I believe are things people cannot learn. In the words of the 17th-century born writer Jane Austen, “Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.”

And by leading in this way and demonstrating that they are not above the rest of the team, silent leaders are at a great advantage because they are better able to earn the trust and respect of their employees – which leads to a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.

Silent leaders often look to buy time and delay a decision where possible to ensure they have all the information required to make the best possible judgement.

Silent leadership in practice

Far from just being a business philosophy, silent leadership has been proven to get real-world results in the right circumstances. A 2010 study by the Harvard Business Review put this idea to the test by undertaking a lab experiment in which 163 college students were asked to work in groups to see how many T-shirts they could fold in 10 minutes. Each group had a leader who was assigned four followers (two of whom were Harvard research assistants acting as followers).

The groups were read a variety of statements before the folding commenced. Some heard statements extolling the virtues of extroverted leaders like John F. Kennedy, while others heard about the merits of silent, introverted leaders such as Gandhi. What’s more, some groups’ followers were actively encouraged to offer feedback and behave in a proactive manner, with the “undercover Harvard research assistant followers” suggesting “better ways” to do the task – and in so doing more or less forcing the leaders of those controlled groups to adapt a silent leadership approach.

At the end of the experiment, those in the “forced silent leadership groups” performed considerably better, folding on average 28% more T-shirts. They also commented that they felt valued, and so were more motivated to work hard for their leader.

In her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking”, Susan Cain singles out Bill Gates as a perfect example of a silent leader, noting that he is “reserved, yet not shy; not charismatic, yet not bothered by anyone else’s opinion of him.” Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seconded this view, adding that “Bill likes it when anyone, even a junior employee, challenges him.”

Another incredibly successful example of this type of leader is American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet, who was also praised by Cain as “a classic example of an introvert taking careful, well-calibrated risks.” Buffet’s silent leadership approach is so successful, says Cain, that if more people followed suit, the 2008 financial crash could have been avoided.

Finding your style

I’ve said it often before: There is no one-size-fits-all leadership style. Leaders are people, and people come in all shapes, with different personalities and different ways of seeing the world. And we can’t ignore the fact that certain leadership styles work better in certain situations, which is why research suggests that the true leader is able to adapt his or her style to fit the need.

But when we talk about silent leadership we do so also in the context of what can be perceived as the changing “boss-worker” landscape. Employees no longer see themselves as mere serfs who are there to get the job done. Today’s office workers want to know that their voices are being heard and that the boss is willing to get on the front lines to fully hear them out – not only by being a better listener, but by seeing what they see.

On a final note, it can also be said that true silent leadership requires a good deal more emotional intelligence than other leadership styles require. You are still leading, but you are giving the perception that the team is in many ways self-led. You encourage independence, but you do so rather cleverly in that people are still working within the overall frameworks you have built that are of course intended to lead the company on a tightly defined path. And, ultimately, you are genuinely considering all feedback, but you are only doing so because it makes perfect sense to do so – that is, you listen to informed voices only because it helps you take the best decisions for your company.

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