Quiet Leadership

Abby, a young lady from Massachusetts, who admittedly spent little time outside of her city, sat with us at a campfire and told of the time she was scared to death — so scared she couldn’t move forward or backward. So, she just sat on a stump waiting for the end. Abby was hiking with a friend in California, a first for her, and she was on high alert. Like many of us, when we are on edge, we don’t always gather all of the information and as a result, our minds run wild. That’s what Abby did. Her friend had gotten ahead of her when Abby looked to the right and saw a field with not just one but several bears in it. She was scared to death.

Now, I’ve spent many a year in Alaska, I’ve hiked a mountain trail or two here in Montana, and I have spent hours listening to men tell stories about their bear encounters, but I’d never heard of anyone just stopping, but that’s what Abby did. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how to save herself. She didn’t know if going forward or running backward would make it worse. So she sat, crying quietly, unable to believe the situation she found herself in.

When her friend came back to look for her, she asked, “What are you doing?” Abby replied that she was terrified of the bears. Abby’s friend looked to the field off to the right, laughed and said, “Oh Abby, those are just cows.”

And that, my friend, is what being scared to death is usually like. We sit down, unable to move forward, unsure of how to save ourselves, or warn others, terrified of facts we don’t understand and myths too big for comprehension. And so we sit, without moving forward, until the day it becomes evident that that which we were most frightened of is not a bear hell-bent on ending our life, but, instead, a cow, who will only swish its tail as we pass. 

When we are too scared to move, stalled between fight or flight, we have to ask a few more questions, gather a few more facts and then determine the best course of action. For Abby, the best course of action should have been to continue the hike and enjoy the vista of a California forest and the satisfaction of accomplishing something she’d never done before.

I’ve gathered these types of stories — lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of following and growing leaders —for a new book I’m writing called “Quiet Leadership.”

Another favorite story gathered is that of my childhood neighbor, Helen, who led a life of order and calm that was so very different from mine. Helen would invite me into her quiet home, listen to my stories and provide me with another way of looking at the world. From her, I learned the power of perspective, that by simply changing our seats and listening from another angle, the correct answer becomes known. I still use this lesson, especially when working with a board of directors doing strategic planning. We change seats, locations, style of input, and output so their minds can work in new ways to solve old problems. 

As much as I admire her, Helen would never have been described as a leader, and yet her grandson, Ed Anderson, became the CEO of South Dakota’s Rural Electric Association. I’ve used the lessons she taught me with countless leaders. That is Quiet Leadership.

The lessons flow through your life, too. You have learned them from aunts and uncles, grandfathers and bosses. Bits of wisdom that made you lean back, satisfied, and maybe a bit awe-struck by the simplicity of the truth in the words they spoke. I learned the first lesson from my Grandma Mabel, whose name was identical to my other Grandma, so I am not playing favorites here. It was powerful in its simplicity. 

Some people are like blisters, and they only show up after all the work is done. 

Grandma insisted I avoid acting like a blister, that I show up early, work hard and give credit instead of demanding recognition. She also counseled that popping a blister would be bad for my reputation, so I learned to let others be themselves no matter how big of a blister they seemed to be. Accepting people for who they are, no matter how aggravating, has given me peace of mind more than once.

We are at a time in our world when we need new leaders to emerge, a time when we need the quiet wisdom, the steady strength of people who can connect, collaborate, and confidently point the way towards a better outcome. Bullhorns and riots gather attention. Still, I will contend that the Quiet Leader, the one who is willing to ask more than they tell, act more than they direct, and celebrate more than they correct, gets better, faster results. Think of the times when you have leaned in, then sat back, satisfied yet ignited and thinking new thoughts. Think of times when the speaker touched your heart and changed your life. It was pure. It was peaceful. It was awe-inspiring. It was life-affirming. It was quiet. But it changed everything. Those moments are Quiet Leadership.

Those are the moments for you to draw on so you can champion the cause, right the ship, or, like Abby, face a field full of bears as you step into your leadership role. 

 Writing this book was easy. Ending the book was hard! New examples of Quiet Leadership kept popping up, or other stories would bounce to the surface, and I would want to tell them. That’s what happened on the last day of writing, moments before the deadline I promised my editor I would hit, no matter what. Our very own Julie Koerber came to mind, and so I wrote a chapter about her work as a leader, a very Quiet Leader in our community, using this magazine to create significant changes. She embodies the best of Quiet Leadership, the willingness to look at both sides, to expose the good and the bad, and to offer to us, her treasured audience, a new way of looking at the world, just like Helen did for me, just like I hope you are doing for another with your life and work.

You are, I am sure, a Quiet Leader in your own right, and I hope I get the chance to hear your story. 



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