James Sangma and Iram Mirza
Political strategist Tim Phillips often asks: What came first, leaders or catastrophes? It may sound like a cynical question but it is a pertinent one for the fractured times we live in. Right now, it is easier to succumb to fatalism, especially if one considers what passes for political discourse nowadays and the new breed of personality-based leadership that is rewriting history and destinies of nations. This emerging polycrisis makes quiet leadership all the more relevant and essential.
The idea of the alpha masculine as the ‘default crisis leadership format’ has gained prominence in the post-covid world, mired as it is in active conflict, spiking inflation and inequality, geopolitical instabilities and climate change. This is coupled with the resurgence of autocratic leaders in all societal blocks, where ‘spin dictators’ manufacture consent by creating mythologies of hyper competence through a very sophisticated public relations machinery. According to the 2022 Varieties of Democracy annual report, in 2021 the world experienced the lowest levels of democracy the world has seen in 30 years.
2022 was also a year of narcissists. A mix of self-confident charm and aggression was hailed as the ultimate leadership template in a world recovering from covid-19. John P Harden, a political science professor at Ripon College, Wisconsin, US, studies narcissism in politics. For a 2021 paper, published in International Studies Quarterly, he reviewed detailed surveys of presidential historians, correlated them with psychology research, and created a kind of narcissism index for US presidents up to the early 2000s. Towards the bottom were Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Calvin Coolidge. At the top were Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Theodore Roosevelt. Harden’s theory is that egos can dictate the flow of history.
The biggest casualty of this is the crumbling of female leadership in all societal blocks. From the resignation of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon to the record number of women leaders leaving corporate roles, all have demonstrated a trend in shifting power norms in gender and leadership. The Reykjavík Index for Leadership has found that trust in women’s leadership has drastically declined over the past year. Only 47% in G7 nations were recorded to have been comfortable with women as CEOs.
As Prime Minister of New Zealand through one of the most trying times of the island nation’s history Ardern modelled authenticity, modesty and empathy as key leadership traits. Sturgeon, similarly, as First Minister of Scotland, was known for her strength of character and justice-based approach. Both led their countries through the covid-19 pandemic, and their styles of leadership were described as issue-based, quiet leadership. However, their resignations have led to a return to old, traditional assumptions about masculine values being perceived as true leadership virtues. This trend, explains Danna Greenberg, a professor of organizational behaviour at Babson College, Wellesley, US, is a fallout of the pandemic, when women were forced to pick up the burden of added childcare and domestic chores.
Even as global leadership trends veer towards “the combative and reactive”, as Greenberg describes it, true solutions for challenges of the future require “an antithetical feminine approach”.
Quiet leadership offers a cultural and political alternative for the future and is more relevant in harnessing the power of collective and participatory intelligence. Quiet leadership channels empathy to navigate the future crises that are inevitably interlinked, and require human solidarity on a scale never attempted before. For instance, climate change adaptation requires cooperation at a civilizational level and requires collective action from nations and humanity. The consensus-building attribute of the quiet leadership model can help forge unorthodox alliances and inspire collective action towards a shared future.
So, what is this quiet leadership model? We have found a way to explain it within the new leadership framework that consultant McKinsey has suggested for the 21st century. According to their report, the four behaviours or roles that that 21st century leaders require are: Architect, Coach, Catalyst and Visionary. We break these four principles down further in the context of quiet leadership:
In her 2016 book, Quiet, Susan Cain discusses the power of introverts, against the most favored cultural tenet of extroversion. In the 19th century, character drover perception and reputation because people lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else. With the Industrial Revolution and migration to cities, personality became the perception driver amidst chaos and unfamiliarity.
We are currently moving towards a model of power that is more generative, from the individual to the collective, which requires more thoughtful decision-making. As architects, leaders have to take on a big-picture approach, designing systems and processes that give people space to b creative while pursuing larger organisational goals. This role requires listening, reflection and thoughtful decision-making, all of which are traits of quiet leadership. This is the first principle of value-based leadership, a philosophical or societal framework that can steer the world towards the principles of shared humanity and power.
Coaching creates a motivated workforce, and quashes the cultural idea of venerating single geniuses. Success and breakthroughs are credited to the power of collective intelligence, collaboration and cooperation. Coaching requires a leader to work with every person on the team, developing mindsets, skills, knowledge and strategic thinking within the entire team, rather than just a few individuals. In his book, Quiet Leadership, neuroscientist, David Rock, shares his research into the role of thinking at work. “A quiet leader sees his or her role as unleashing people’s potential more than imposing his or her own view,” he writes. This requires a dismantling of the cult of personality and introducing a shared power principle.
Similarly, in his book Good To Great, Jim Collins describes Level 5 leaders as those who dedicate themselves to the service of the mission over their personal ambition. Credit and power are not hoarded but distributed to accelerate the mission.
The simultaneous crises that we are facing makes imagination over intelligence the key principle to leadership. All our systems need to be re-imagined to shape a clear, compelling purpose or vision. Geoff Mulgan, professor of collective intelligence, public policy and social innovation at University College London, says the crisis of today is not material but also psychological, giving rise to “large populations who are increasingly stressed by pervasive cultural, economic and social changes”, which results in “catastrophizing” or negative ways of thinking. This has led to a negative imagination of dystopias as opposed to the possibilities of the future. A visionary can counter this by leading people towards a common goal.
Quiet leadership favours a research-based mindset, where bias and limiting assumptions are dispensed with. Decisions are based on evidence and critical thinking and are solutions-oriented. This brings new energy into the entire system, encouraging an inclusive and welcoming environment where work and results come first, taking precedence over narrow personal considerations.
Most importantly, leaders in the time of the polycrisis require ‘split screen thinking’, or the ability to compute the urgent pressing issues alongside a vision for the future, while constantly keeping human biases in check. It is essential to develop such leaders who can quietly dedicate themselves to rebuilding a more resilient world for tomorrow.
James Sangma is a former minister of environment and forest, health, law, taxation and food supplies in Meghalaya. Iram Mirza advises governments on social innovation and impact programming.