Some of the best leaders began their careers without an aspiration to lead. They were not the “take charge” kids on the playground. They didn’t seek the spotlight or strive for prestige. They were not the go-getters, trail-blazers or stars of the show. People were just drawn to them. Others trusted and respected them. And before they knew it, they were leading the way, without having signed up for the job. These low-key leaders can be found in all corners of organizations and we are better off for having them.
In general, low key leaders share some common attributes. They are typically not inclined toward power or control. They don’t seek accolades or top billing. They are driven by an intrinsic drive to achieve a vision or goal (or simply to do the right things right) without a need to be recognized as the “one” who achieved it. They are willing to find and leverage the best that others have to offer and create an avenue for others to shine. Perhaps because of these traits, they don’t tend to seek out formal leadership roles. They may even purposely shy away from leadership– believing it to be for those with a more extraverted personality style. In her 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain talks of the trend in the United States in particular to over-champion extroverted leaders and overlook the strengths of those with a more introverted approach. The result of this is that even low-key leaders may resist seeing themselves as leaders, or as willing to own the natural influence they have within their teams, organizations and communities.
During the launch of each of CTI’s Leadership Fellowship and Academy programs, we ask participants to share the qualities that come to mind when they think of great leaders. Not surprisingly, “charismatic” and “inspirational” are almost always on the list. Surrounding those words though, are often low-key leadership strengths like “good listener”, “compassionate”, “thoughtful and reasoned problem-solver”, “empowers others”, “calming influence”, etc. The final list typically paints a picture of perfection and well-roundedness that seldom, if ever, can be found in one person. Each time, the take-away from this conversation that stands out most is the need to make a place for all types of leaders, rather than over-champion the virtues of one. We need our charismatic and out-front trail-blazers. But to all the low-key leaders out there, rest assured that we desperately need you too. And so let me dedicate the remainder of this blog as an appeal to you, the low-key leader.
You bring legitimate and vital leadership strengths, just as you are. You don’t have to rewire your personality to help lead your teams and organizations toward great results. Like all leaders, you will always have room to grow and expand, but this doesn’t mean you need to be all things to all people. All leaders have to flex their style and approach to some degree in order to be effective, and the same is true for you. To realize a vision for your team or organization, you will need to flex muscles that aren’t as naturally strong – promoting yourself and your team; reaching out to build relationships beyond your team and department; leading “out loud” more often than you may be inclined. You don’t however, have to become the charismatic, enthusiastic and dynamic image of a leader that is so often touted as the gold standard.
The reality is that your low-key approach is appreciated, and others are drawn to follow you because of it. They like that you temper optimism with realism. They value your hesitation to embrace the latest fad, your willingness to acknowledge obstacles and limitations (without being too easily deterred by these), your ability to give others a voice and let others shine, your quiet persistence, etc. These are as much the hallmarks of great leadership as the more widely celebrated attributes of the extrovert.
Own the fact that you lead and influence just as you are. Where possible, be willing to take on a formal leadership role. Not only will you bring vital perspectives and attributes to your organization, you’ll also pave the way for others with a low-key style to see themselves as leaders.
About the Author
Margie West has more than 21 years experience as a learning facilitator and performance consultant in the public and private sector. Margie facilitates practical workshops in business communication, team and collaboration effectiveness, and leadership. She brings expertise in the communication skills needed to effectively lead and collaborate with others, and in the facilitation of innovative and experiential adult learning.
Read more about Margie