5 Tips to Quiet the Impulse to Lead “Heroically”

Warwick Fairfax

August 20, 2020

I have always been drawn to heroic leadership. Great leaders faced with impossible odds doing great deeds. But in an upcoming episode of the Beyond the Crucible podcast with Professor Joseph Badaracco of the Harvard Business School, we touched on another approach to leadership: quiet leadership which he discussed in his book Leading Quietly. We went on to focus for much of the podcast on Professor Badaracco’s latest book Step Back, which explores how leaders can reflect during their busy lives.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review (“We Don’t Need Another Hero” – Sept. 2001), which came out around the time Leading Quietly did, there is this quote talking about how quiet leadership is practical, effective and sustainable. “Quiet leaders prefer to pick their battles and fight them carefully rather than go down in a blaze of glory for a single, dramatic effort.” In the book, Professor Badaracco talks about how quiet leaders nudge, test and escalate gradually, and seek compromise. They view strong measures and heroism as the last resort, not the first choice or standard model.

As I listened to Professor Badaracco and read these words, about how leading quietly was a better model than the more celebrated view of heroic leadership, they haunted me. Not only was I raised on the heroic leadership model, but I used it when I launched the A $2.25B takeover of my family’s media company in Australia in 1987. The takeover, after three years, ultimately failed, causing me and other family members much pain.

I was raised on the philosophy of great leaders, often great men, doing great deeds. My father and I often talked about history, which was a particular passion we shared. My father particularly loved English history. So I was raised on stories of Admiral Lord Nelson defeating the French and Spanish fleets in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, as well as the Duke of Wellington defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. There was, of course, Prime Minister Winston Churchill standing up to the might of Nazi Germany during World War II, during the dark days of the Battle of Britain in 1940. Later on, I came to be fascinated with American history with its heroes, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. These were leaders who did not shrink from the challenge, and against impossible odds they prevailed.

My father also read to me, when I was quite young, Charles Kingsley’s book, The Heroes, written in the late 1880s. It spoke of the mythical exploits of Greek heroes: Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts and Theseus.

I had quite the diet of heroes. Growing up in a family newspaper business, after my father was removed as Chairman of John Fairfax Ltd. in 1976 by other relatives, my parents saw me as the heir apparent. They hoped that one day I would ascend to a leading position within the company and from their perspective bring it back to the ideals of the founder (my great-great grandfather), and ensure that the company was well-managed.

After I launched the takeover, things went wrong from the start. Other family members sold out, our asset sale program was affected by the October 1987 stock market crash, and when Australia faced a significant economic recession in 1990, the company had to file for bankruptcy. One hundred fifty years of family control ended on my watch.

Because I believed the company was not being well run and not being run in line with the ideals of John Fairfax, I went in all guns blazing, so to speak, to save the day. It all went terribly wrong, causing not only financial impact to the company and of course myself, but difficult feelings among family members.

Might there have been a better way? This is where leading quietly calls more for patience, humility and knowing when it is time to do something and when it is time not to. It is impossible to know for certain whether quiet leadership might have worked better. It could hardly have made things any worse than my actions did.

So here are some key attributes from my perspective of leading quietly:

1. Be Humble.

Don’t assume that you are the one to save the day. Something may need to be done, but you may or you may not be the one to do it.

2. Be Patient.

Something may need to be done, by you or someone else, but perhaps not now. Sometimes waiting is the most prudent thing to do. Shortly after the company went bankrupt, a book was written about me and the takeover called The Man Who Couldn’t Wait. Its thesis was that one day I would have had enough shares to be in a leading position within the family company, if I had only waited. While I may feel like this may be a bit simplistic, it still causes me to pause.

3. Build Alliances.

Often while waiting, the best thing we can do is ask others about the challenge that your organization or your endeavor is facing. See what they think. Over time, you might coalesce a group of people around a common purpose or vision.

4. Learn.

Don’t assume you know everything before you take decisive action. I had graduated from Harvard Business School, shortly before I returned to Australia. How much did I gather information and learn first-hand the situation at the company, rather than getting information second-hand and though my parents? Not enough.

5. Know your Design.

I felt that since something had to be done, and if not me then who, that I was going to launch the takeover to make what I felt were needed changes. These changes may have been ones my parents felt were needed, but was I the one to do them? I am at heart a reflective adviser. I don’t seek the limelight, and I don’t typically enjoy being the up-front leader. Leading a large media company, with newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and magazines, constantly in the limelight, was the last thing I wanted to do. I was not a take no-prisoners-leader. It was a terrible fit for my design, for my basic wiring.

What’s interesting is that when we think of heroic leaders such as George Washington, they actually used more of the attributes of quiet leadership than we might imagine. In late 1775 and early 1776, the Continental Army of the American colonies was laying siege to Boston. The British forces were well-entrenched. Month after month, Washington would consult his generals, most of whom had more strategic military experience than he did. He wanted to assault the British forces, but month after month his generals said not yet. This made Washington very frustrated and impatient. Yet he realized they were probably right. So he listened to the wise counsel of his generals and waited. Finally, in February 1776, Washington’s generals said yes. Colonel Knox had brought cannon from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to the Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston. At this point, the British felt they had to withdraw with a hardly a shot being fired. Quiet leadership had won the day.

So perhaps my view of heroic leadership lacked some context. History is full of great leaders accomplishing great deeds against the odds, but some of them also were humble and patient, built alliances, learned and knew their design (what they were good at and what they were not good at). In short, perhaps truly great heroic leaders can also be quiet leaders.

Reflection

  • How much do you gravitate towards the typical heroic leadership model?
  • What attributes of quiet leadership could make your leadership more effective?
  • Which aspect of quiet leadership do you most need to work on first?

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