Can I Be A Quiet Leader?

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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

Ask Mission Central: Question Ten

“It seems like the image of a leader is the person who takes up the most space in a room—loud and confident. What models of gospel leadership can I look to that are quieter and less assuming?”

DeKalb, IL




There’s a stanza of a poem that speaks of those “less assuming” members of the human (and leadership) family:

But we are the silent types, 
who hold speech within 
like the rustle of gold foil.

—Paul Hoover, in “Why is Quiet ‘Kept’?”

I love the line “who hold speech within.” It’s a metaphor for how we hold onto words, without having to to constantly give voice to them. Scripture uses similar metaphors; Jesus speaks of his “words remain[ing]” in his disciples (John 15:7 NIV), while Paul enjoins the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16 ESV). These turns of phrase depict the Christian community as a spacious home for powerful words, where they are savored, not unlike a reading room in a library.

Hoover’s image of “gold foil” also suggests that the speech that “the silent types” hold within is precious and beautiful. It reminds me of Mary, who “treasured up” the wonders of God’s work that she witnessed “and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19 NIV). Not only words, but also events and experiences, can be taken into the inner places of our being. When we’re open and attentive to the words and moments that God is giving to us, something happens that we miss out on when we’re distracted.

As such, people who are quiet by dint of personality have a particular gift to offer the broader Christian community. While all of us need to practice silence and solitude, the habit of paying attention and being receptive comes much more naturally to some than others. The people who “take up the most space in the room” may not notice everything going on in the room. It’s hard to listen while you’re talking; those who talk less can take in more.

But what about in the task of leadership? You’re right that the archetypes of leaders that leap to mind in our cultural context are bold figures: powerful orators like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., fictional heroes like Iron Man or Captain Marvel (“Try to keep up”), or artistic performers who command the attention and adulation of thousands of fans. Even at church, we easily idolize our leaders’ personalities—which can leave us wondering if there’s a place for personalities that are less electric. What does it look like to be a quiet leader?

Multiple Leaderships

In the 1980s, psychologist Howard Gardner put an “s” at the end of the word “intelligence” and changed the field of education. There’s more than one way to be intelligent, and it’s not accurate to think about intelligence as a single linear scale along which any human being can be ranked. We need to put an “s” on the end of the word “leadership,” too. There are multiple leaderships, and excelling in one does not necessarily qualify someone to perform well in another.

There are some leadership roles that a quiet personality is ill-suited to. Serving as a drill sergeant comes to mind. However, several kinds of leadership that stereotypically look “loud” do not need to be, and an unassuming and receptive demeanor can even prove advantageous to them. Let’s take a look at the power of quiet in three vital kinds of Christian leadership: executive leadership, pastoral leadership, and artistic leadership.


Executive Leadership

Perhaps the most lauded form of leadership in contemporary U.S. culture is the commanding corporate executive. Something about the power to coordinate a large-scale enterprise captures our national imagination. I have to confess that I’m among those who find such leadership fascinating and inspiring. I am not above reading Alan Mulally’s Wikipedia article with admiration as I learn about how he turned Ford around when it was a failing company. Something inside me asks the question, “How can I lead like that?”

There’s quite a gap between the leadership I’m responsible for here at Mission Central and something on the scale of Ford Motor Company. But it’s not bad to take cues from those who have served others well. So let’s ask the question: how can I lead like a good executive? Is it by being loud?

Not so much. Mulally’s own leadership style has been described as “quiet confidence.” It’s not the volume that makes the difference in this kind of leadership. Executive leadership is about making the right decisions and then making sure those decisions are carried out through real, hard work. Making the right decisions requires patience and receptivity, especially receptivity to one’s teammates. Unless one finds out what’s really going on in all the relevant areas of the enterprise, decisions will be uninformed. Being an excellent listener is essential.

Not only listening to get the right information, but also the process of deliberation itself may be easier for a quieter personality. Susan Cain summarizes research about introverts’ and extroverts’ emotional experience by noting that extroverts tend to experience more “buzz,” a positive emotional energy associated with saying yes to new opportunities. But when making decisions, buzz can lead extroverts to embrace risks too quickly. “Buzz can cause us to ignore warning signs we should be heeding” (161). Having a low-buzz personality makes it easier to put the brakes on and make sure the right decision is reached—and that makes for being a stronger executive leader.


Pastoral Leadership

“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care,” Peter tells the elders of the church, “watching over them” (1 Peter 5:2). Shepherding the human soul is a different skill than making effective organizational decisions. Even so, our national focus on executive leadership has changed the shape of expectations placed upon church leaders over the past half-century. As Ruth Haley Barton writes:

These days . . . many pastors are expected to function like CEOs of large corporations. They are expected to be good managers. They are expected to preach sermons that are culturally relevant and contribute expertise and innovative ideas regarding production and programming.
(p. 28, emphasis original)

Of course, the larger a church is, the more it will benefit from someone making good organizational decisions. But that skill will not by itself meet the spiritual needs of the sheep. Shepherds must guide, nourish, correct, and protect, and they must do it in a way that sheep can receive. Although emotional intelligence is certainly an advantage in executive leadership, shepherding requires a different kind and level of interpersonal savvy and sensitivity than what’s needed for hard-nosed business decisions.

I point out the difference between the two kinds of leadership because conflating the two is another way in which we are tempted to collapse multiple leaderships into one monolithic “leadership.” But those who are quiet can excel in either. I think of the Catholic contemplative Henri Nouwen, who has been described as “an introvert in an extrovert’s clothing” and whose own meditations on solitude, community, and ministry flow from a stream of living water. Although as a writer and speaker he ministered to thousands, he never stopped being a pastor who could attend to one person’s needs.

A receptive personality can help someone become a good shepherd for the same reason it can help someone become a good doctor; it helps in any field where thoughtful, perceptive attention to each individual person is vital. For both physical and spiritual ailments, accurate diagnosis and prescription depends upon discerning the true causes of symptoms. Nuance matters. The shepherd must variously “correct, rebuke and encourage” according to each person’s need, “with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2 NIV). Those who can focus on just one person, away from the buzz of the crowd, are well suited to such work.

Of course, this kind of “customized care” is only possible to the extent that the people being shepherded are willing to bare their hearts. Loud shepherds, bless them, can be a tad overwhelming. Some tender souls will find it much easier to open up to a gentler, quieter shepherd. 


Artistic Leadership

One of the advantages of a softer approach to life and leadership is that it leaves room for taking things in, for paying attention. Attentiveness is vital to the work of every artist. I once attended a drawing class where the instructor encouraged us to turn the picture we were copying upside down. That way, she said, we’d be less likely to draw how we think something should look, and more likely to draw the lines and shapes based on what we saw. She knew that without even trying, we would default to some other frame of reference than what we were seeing.

This temptation to neglect attention is true not just at the literal level of physical sight, but also for faithfulness to an artistic vision. Many who speak of “artistic integrity” make the artist the final arbiter of what does or doesn’t measure up to their values. But for the Christian, the attentiveness that leads to artistic fruitfulness is witnessing God’s presence and work in the world. You can only bear witness if you’re taking time to witness, to see. Faithful seeing requires a kind of distance from hurry and scurry and “buzz.” The temptation is to get caught up in the demands that go along with the work and never step back to get that needed distance.

While all artists face this temptation, it’s especially acute for those who lead others in the artistic endeavor, whether as a teacher, a director, or even an informal team leader among creatives. Our teammates’ and co-creators’ desires, needs, and agendas compete for our time, mental energy, and emotional reserves. We have to deal with the limitations of real human beings, as well as the necessities of deadlines and production budgets. The loud artistic leader who is energized by these challenges can thrive and serve others well, but may be prone to neglect the quieter work of seeing. Those who feel more strain in the hubbub of collaboration, by contrast, may more willingly return to the patient solitude of paying attention to the work of the Spirit.

My high school theater director exemplified this kind of retreat each year during the chaos of our spring musical. She wrangled dozens of teenagers into tap-dancing formations. She coached the leads into acting that crossed the boundary between merely reciting lines and real pathos. She taught white suburbanites how to breakdance. (Yes, really!) But she also took time to ponder the spiritual themes of each production. The director’s notes printed in the programs each year offered audiences a winsome reflection on how the show’s motifs hinted at a larger narrative of redemption. Although her work was loud, it was suffused with the fruit of her times in quiet. 


Models to Imitate

We need quiet leaders. Their receptivity produces better decisions, their sensitivity makes for better shepherding, and their vision preserves artistic integrity that is a witness to God’s work in the world. Gospel leadership takes many different forms, and loud, confident people don’t have a corner on it. Speaking as a relatively loud person, I hope that there’s always a place for us at the table. But I’m not too worried about that. The real risk is that those of us who are loud can, even without meaning to, push others to the corners because we take up so much space. Instead, we would do well to take a cue from our quieter companions and look at the whole table, taking it in, and making sure there’s a spot for everyone. 

In your question, you mentioned “models.” That word has two meanings: both a construct or type (like the three species of leadership discussed above) and an example to imitate. While conceptual frameworks are helpful, flesh and blood models are more powerful. So, as a next step to find a way into your own quiet leadership, keep an eye out for people in your community who keep a gentler pace while leading others. Whose interior life whispers with “the rustle of gold foil” rather than echoing with a trumpet call? Watch how they lead, and get some time with them if you can.

As you step out into the leadership that fits the way God made you, you’ll find that quiet can grow steadily into a confidence all your own.

Photo from Pressmaster on Pexels

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