The Reluctant King
The Quiet Leadership Style & the Support It Needs
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. Henry IV, Part 2
Once upon a time there was a King.
He was kind, gentle, intelligent, well read, a good husband and father and well loved by everyone at the royal palace. If you are like me and suspicious of happy stories, you are probably wondering where is the catch... Yes, there is a ‘but’.
He was an introvert!
A non-flashy, non-loud, quiet king. He believed his work spoke for him and if he did the right thing, over time, people would learn to appreciate it. He chose not to get into political battles and would walk away most times when pulled into a confrontational situation with people close to him.
Guess who did not take to that kindly?
His team of Ministers! All older, wiser people – who would look at him and say – “No charisma! How is he ever going to make us look good?” or “Good guy but how will he show up against the neighboring king who shines wherever he goes?” As they debated, they got more and more convinced that the King had to go and eventually they got rid of him.
I will hold the story here. Doesn’t matter what came after and whether they lived happily ever after or not. Let’s bring this conversation to styles of leadership.
Framing the Case for the Quiet Leader
In the modern day, such a king would fall under the category of a highly introspective, vulnerable and quiet leader and in most cases, he would be viewed as a liability. That is because it is typically assumed that leaders must have the ability to engage large groups of people, get on the stage and create rah-rah moments and bring energy to their teams. Strong communication skills especially the “one to many” kind as well as “charisma” are key attributes people look at while judging leadership skills. Often enough, that is because these are things one notices first about an individual.
For decades, leadership profiles have been based on this outgoing, fun, cheerleader-type persona, assuming they are the core traits of a true leader. Being vulnerable and open were considered weaknesses. Instead, leaders needed to have all the answers and make the final decisions.
Thus, in a world that continues to equate good leadership with loud leadership, framing the case for quiet leadership can be challenging. However, research tells us a different story.
For Engaged, Creative Teams, Introverted Leaders Are Best
In a 2019 study, Wharton professor Adam Grant and his colleagues Francesca Gino and David A. Hofmann found that both introverted leaders and extroverted leaders could be effective when you actually track the performance of their teams and companies. But there are some significant differences. As Grant explains:
“...we found that whether introverts are more or less effective depends on the kinds of employees they had. Extroverts are better leaders with reactive followers, people who looking for direction from above. By contrast, introverted leaders are more effective with proactive employees.”
Grant goes on to explain that having an extroverted leader in charge of a team who are bringing ideas and suggestions to the table, who are taking initiative — can actually backfire. This is because extroverted leaders tend to feel threated by that and that can have two negative effects. One, it can shut down those people’s ideas, which means the extroverted leaders didn’t hear as many ideas. And two, it can demotivate people who are gifted problem solvers.
On the contrary, introverted, quieter leaders are much more likely to listen, make people feel valued and get better ideas. As such, they are much better positioned to activate such teams and bring the best out of them.
Back to the Kingdom and the Quiet Leader — Questions for Exploration
With Adam Grant’s research as a point of reference, we can now look back on the dilemma faced by the reluctant king and his team of ministers and imagine new possibilities. Several questions would be worth exploring. For example:
• Why was this more introverted King appointed in the first place?
• What did the hiring committee think through while appointing this leader?
• What was the direction and KPIs given to this leader when he took over the role?
Now let’s peep inside the head of this King. More questions for reflection:
• Did he understand the exact challenges of being a King in that particular environment when his accession to the throne?
• What was he thinking when he agreed to sit on the throne?
• How badly did he want it and did he put in all his effort to succeed?
• Did he understand his strengths and developmental areas well enough going in and did he seek help where he knew he might struggle; or did he make the classic mistake of taking on the ‘burden’ of leadership which believes the leader needs to have all the answers and he cannot be seen as weak and seeking help?
• Who was his coach / mentor / sponsor as he was making this transition and how did he engage with this person(s) to brainstorm and seek wisdom?
These are all questions we might also ask quite easily in today’s context as we see leadership succeed or fail. Too often as leaders, we get so caught up in needing to have all the answers and then end up alienating the people around us. Or as companies, we tend to put leaders on pedestals and then we become quick to judge and bring them down when they exhibit vulnerability.
What then can we do to prepare fertile soil for the development of these much-needed quiet leaders and what can these leaders do for themselves to ensure that they can thrive in that soil?
Here are some tips for the quiet leaders out there:
• Accept the fact that you don’t need to know it all or have all the answers. In short, embrace what one of my colleagues often calls ‘conscious incompetence’. Only then can you create the space to learn what you don’t know.
• Don’t hesitate to reach out for help; it’s not a sign of weakness, but a mark of your practical wisdom.
• Start creating the right support structures for yourself from day one and tweak those structures as your needs changes.
For the people that surround such a leader, here are some suggestions:
• Give your quiet leaders the space and time to work their magic.
• Allow them first to know themselves well as they take on this new role.
• Support them in finding a strong coach and mentor from the start so they can discuss, debate and reflect
• Assist them in building the right team around them — one that will complement their style so that as a team they will be able to deliver what the organization needs.
As the world becomes more dynamic and competitive, and as the need for organizations comprised of creative, proactive employees grows ever stronger, it will be to these ‘reluctant Kings’ that we turn—knowing that, in time and with the right support, they are in the best position to lead us toward success.
Adam M. Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann, 2011: Reversing the Extraverted Leadership Advantage: The Role of Employee Proactivity. AMJ, 54, 528–550, https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2011.61968043
Sarah Silverstein and Rachel Cohn, 2020: An organizational psychologist explains why introverts will make better leaders in the future. Business Insider https://www.businessinsider.com/adam-grant-explains-why-introverts-will-make-better-leaders-in-the-future-2019-2
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