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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Leadership's Quiet Side

Leadership’s Quiet Side

By Jeff Papa
Doctoral Student
Indiana State University
Chief of Staff and Chief Legal Counsel
Indiana State Senate
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Charisma does not necessarily define leadership.  Neither does one’s professing boldly from any given bully pulpit or riding a public gallop of mission toward vision.  Such is certainly evidenced in K-12 education.

A recent ISU Ed. Leadershop article, Will I Lose Touch (March 4, 2014) discussed how a principalship could be “even more satisfying than a position as classroom teacher to forge one-on-one relationships with students and to make a positive difference.”  It pointed out that the majority of one’s time as a leader is spent interacting with people (one on one or in groups), and that “[Even] in times in which you try your best to act discreetly and confidentially, news will spread regarding your actions.  This can be used to your advantage; after all, you have the power to act when others do not.”

Communities, organizations, and the public oftentimes envision leadership as involving very public aspects of the role, such as leading large assemblies, conducting meetings, giving media interviews, announcing big changes, and directing subordinates.  While these aspects of leadership are important, the majority of critical work done by leaders is often not apparent to the casual observer.  An earlier Leadershop article, first-authored by Rex Ryker entitled, Managing, Mushing, & Motivating (January 21, 2014) made the leader/team analogy of a sled-dog team, “a living system of interdependence exist[ing] in each and every team-based accomplishment, with the leader inextricably linked to the forces that power the journey, which if absent, would result in ineffectiveness.”

As a leader, the charge is to have the overall best interests of the organization (however those are defined) in mind; this is not always aligned with the personal best interests of the leader in each micro (or macro) application.  Add to that the competing interests of subordinates, and the complexity becomes apparent, sometimes necessitating very private action.

Theoretically, this can be described as a result of the interplay between the nomothetic dimension of any organization (institution’s roles and expectations) and the ideographic dimensions (individuals’ personalities and need dispositions), in terms of how leaders act to maintain the institution’s structures, purposes, norms, and even its sanctions, while the people within make attempts to socialize their organizations to meet their needs and ends (Getzels & Guba, 1957).  From our perspective, done right -- it’s a push/pull, wink/nod, dance/dip type-of-thing.  Most people inside and outside the organization are unaware of the vast array of these micro-interactions in which leaders are required to engage, sometimes in stealth.  Leaders spend a good deal of time cultivating, coordinating, calming, and crediting; the vast majority of this work is done one-on-one or in very small groups.

Let us consider some of this work done, for the most part, invisibly … quietly.

In order to be effective, leaders need to cultivate.  This includes cultivating potential employees and team members, cultivating current employees for new roles, cultivating professional contacts, and cultivating the desired organizational culture and expectations.  These activities are overwhelmingly done one-on-one or in small groups.

Leaders spend a great deal of time coordinating.  This includes scheduling activities, setting broad goals and agendas, ensuring that proper teams are put in place and that appropriate resources and people are connected in order to achieve goals efficiently.  These activities are often done alone, one-on-one, or in small groups.  Interestingly, in contemporary K-12 education, the whole notion of a principal-as-building manager is downplayed in importance, or even criticized.  Yet, what would happen if this “machining” was not handled?

Not much.

Leaders act to calm situations, those that could negatively impact (or are impacting) the organization.  Very often, these issues involve one individual or a small group causing conflict, acting inappropriately, exceeding authority in negative ways, or failing to perform. Because these situations are often volatile or involve confidential or personal information, leaders often resolve these issues discreetly.  Very often, no one outside the few people involved are aware of the potential damage that could have been inflicted if the situations were not addressed.

What is common in the aforementioned examples is their rather quiet nature.

Our best leaders rarely seek personal credit for successes and accomplishments.  Our best leaders give credit for things that go well, to others.  Conversely, they take full responsibility for anything that goes awry, even if out of their control.  When failures occur, the lessons learned and corrections applied are privately shared with the individuals or small groups involved, all the while the leader fields the brunt of public criticism. 

These leader-like activities fit well with what Buckingham and Coffman (1999) called “management,” described by way of Four Keys: [Managers] select employees for talent (not just experience or intelligence); they define desired outcomes (not steps to take); they focus on strengths (not weaknesses), and they help mentees find the next best fit (not just automatically the next rung up the career ladder) (p. 67).

What is not necessarily intuitive to the public about these activities is that they take place alone, one-on-one, and in very small groups.  Very few people will know that they even occurred.  They are for the most part, invisible … quiet.

The quiet of leadership is a must, as the myriad challenges it confronts are often confidential (such as personnel actions and counseling or initial discussions of interest in a new business venture or contract) or are dispute-resolving (settling a disagreement between individuals or groups; counseling or disallowing an individual or small group against a negative action). They may involve the mentoring or advancement of individuals (giving career advice or serving as a sounding board) and often only involve certain key stakeholders or partners (such as strategy meetings with key personnel or legal or fiscal meetings with relevant staff or providers). 

In order for an action to remain effective or to define itself as “becoming of a leader,” the leader often cannot reveal that someone else caused the problem, that a disaster was averted, that unnecessary conflict was avoided, that bad proposals were rejected, or that sometimes it is better in the larger picture of things for the leader to accept “blame” without revealing his or her micro intervention.  In some cases, this occurs without general knowledge that a far-less-desirable outcome had been avoided through quiet intervention.

These actions “lead” to the smooth functioning of a successful organization, with credit to the leader oftentimes provided in private, if at all, for the deft management employed. 

Our more shrewd leaders can, at times, gain credibility as word spreads of the interest and resolution achieved in these micro applications, even if details are not widely known. This indirect and sometimes clandestine orchestration is especially important in that leaders often know they will be criticized for perceived inaction or actions taken where the general organization is not aware of the efforts taken toward resolution.  This includes retaining necessary confidences, protecting personal information, and redirecting positive credit. 

It would do us all well to consider that amidst the cloak and cover of leadership’s best management, a bit of sunshine is needed to provide comfort regarding the good, moral, and effective actions taken in these micro situations, albeit “quiet,” to most.


Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers to differently.  Washington, D.C.: The Gallup Press.

Getzels, J. W., & Guba, E. G. (1957, Winter). Social behavior and the administrative process. The School Review, 65(4), 423-441.


Jeff Papa and Ryan Donlan enjoy deep conversations regarding leadership.  With similar perspectives on the machining of leadership toward quiet resolution of challenge, they encourage comment and feedback and can be reached at or at 

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