Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr.: Leading Quietly*
Now what I’m going to do today is talk for a while about research I’ve done over the last five years and completed with the publication of a book by that title: Leading Quietly. What I set out to do initially was to see what I could learn about leadership and effective leadership, if I looked beyond, if I looked away from, what I’ll call the heroic model. And the heroic model is one that, with the briefest sketch, is familiar to all of us. Who are heroic leaders? They are people who change the world or part of the world, they’ve got very strong values, they are charismatic, they are inspiring, they are willing to make sacrifices, sometimes, in some walks of life, the ultimate sacrifice, because they sacrificed their lives. I have no intention, here today or at any point, in tearing down all that the great figures have contributed to our world. Without them, our world would be a poorer and meaner place. Without them, we wouldn’t have examples of courage to talk to our kids and to others about. But the proposition I want to put in front of you today is that viewing leadership, particularly leadership in organizations, particularly in the middle of big, complicated business organizations, simply in terms of heroism, is a limited and sometimes even misleading perspective. Let me say a little bit more about why I think that’s the case. I think there are at least three problems with this heroic view. One of them I call the pyramid issue. If you think about the world in terms of heroes, you tend to have in the back of your mind a big triangle, and at the top you’ve got great leaders, and at the bottom, fill in your favorite candidates, the skunks, bottom-dwelling slugs, T.S. Eliot’s hollow men. What about everybody else who is in the middle? People who are neither out saving the world like great heroes, saving companies, saving brands, nor are they exploiting it. They are doing their jobs, living their lives, taking care of the people around them. The heroic model doesn’t say much about them. The second problem with the heroic model was expressed in the Burke videotape. He said, “I never had any trouble telling right from wrong.” And I think that is fundamentally right because there are so many situations, as you know, when this is right and this is wrong, and the task is not to figure out what is the right thing to do, it’s to get yourself or other people to move in that direction rather than this one. But there are a whole set of messy, complicated problems that I refer to as right versus right problems that do not fit the simple, heroic, dothe-right-thing model. Let me give you an example.
Edited for clarity
You are at home. It’s evening. Someone knocks on your door. It’s somebody who works for you, he’s worked with you for a number of years. He says, “I’m really sorry to bother you at home, but I’ve got some really fabulous news.” This individual lives just a couple miles away. And he says, “I wanted you to be one of the first to know. My wife and I have been looking for a home and we really think we have found the house of our dreams. It’s really expensive, we are going to have to take some money out of the kids’ college funds, but this is just a fabulous home, and you know you are my boss, and you are the best boss I’ve ever had….” I’m sure many of you have had this experience. “The best boss I can even imagine having.” So you nod politely and in the back of your mind you know that there is a layoff coming and that this individual’s name is on that list. By buying this house, he’s not only putting himself on the brink of financial calamity, he’s going to be taking a plunge over it. Now what do you do? You know the layoff is coming. As a corporate officer, you have a duty of confidentiality to the corporation. You’re not supposed to disclose the coming layoffs piecemeal to your friends. That’s supposed to be announced when...