The Quiet Leader

Posted by: on September 23rd, 2020

One of the greatest lessons on leadership in my life came from an early experience I had while working as a counselor a residential treatment center for youth, when I was just out of college. One of the realities of the job was that everyone else knew when you were having problems with the youth (i.e., there would be screaming, furniture throwing, banging doors and loudspeaker calls for the intervention specialist) and it was hard to avoid making judgments as to who was in charge and whether the unit was calm or in upheaval.

Over my time there I observed closely how the other counselors on duty dealt with problems. There were some counselors who commanded great respect through tight control built around rules, but when they were off duty, the other counselors could never keep the unit from deteriorating into a raucous mess.

Although co-counselors in these units would strive to emulate the absent leader in order to maintain control, life in these units often became a battlefield of wills.  While these units were remarkably well behaved at times, it seemed to me the youth had not changed inwardly if they fell apart when tight control was absent. Was this the only way?

Then along came Gary, a quiet man who would slip in and out of the scene. When the counselors migrated home for the holidays, or summer break, Gary migrated to the Villa. This was his in fact his childhood home (it was formerly an orphanage). When Gary showed up, he would pick the unit with the most problems and camp out there with the children who had nowhere to go at the holidays. He was there on his own terms, and always welcome because of this special connection to the youth who knew his history.

Again and again, the same thing would happen: in a matter of a few weeks, the apartment would do a complete turnaround, from a place of chaos to one of calm.

In fact, everyone assumed it was his special connection with youth which made the difference. While I do not doubt this was a part of it, there was a critical difference with Gary’s impact. When Gary left the scene, even months later, things did not fall apart. The interesting part of the result is that because things did not fall apart when he left, the other counselors owned the success of the turnaround. And this did not bother Gary.  

What he explained to me is that youth and counselors need to work together to build agreement on a small set of rules that are not elaborate and detailed but are easily understood and address the most important aspects of daily living.

He said a focus on too many rules requires constant interpretation by the leader who then becomes the agent for control. The agreement should not be set in concrete, but start short term, say two weeks, and then it should be reviewed and renewed with youth input and consensus. Gary taught the leaders to focus on the authority of the living agreement to achieve results, not the authority of the leader. He taught consistency and mutual respect above the need for control and self-congratulation.

Lao-Tse, in 565 B.C., said A leader is best when people barely know he exists and not so good when people obey and acclaim him.” Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say “We did it ourselves.”

About Nancy J. Hess

I help leaders pioneer extraordinary change through high engagement and whole systems approaches that focus on HR and People.