Quiet Leadership (Brian Harris)

Quiet Leadership (Brian Harris) July 13, 2012

Guest Blog by Brian Harris (see at the bottom of the post for more details): Quiet Leadership

If you have ever ruled yourself out as a leader because you aren’t a dynamic, upfront person, you might find Badaracco’s Leading Quietly liberating. Badaracco has made a study of quiet leadership where he argues that the leadership qualities that result in long term success don’t revolve around charisma, but are more directly related to perseverance, tenacity and other centeredness, as well as a willingness to nudge rather than gallop ahead, and to arrive at appropriate compromises. He suggests that instead of finding brilliant ways to solve problems, quiet leaders look for ways to live with problems, and are willing to aim at what is reasonably attainable rather than only at what is ideal. They model restraint, modesty and flexibility.

As I’ve reflected on Badaracco’s views it has struck me that while many of them resonate with biblical values, the church circles in which I move are sometimes dismissive of them. Indeed heroic views of leadership abound, and I can name ever so many churches who are hoping to find a messianic style leader who will lead them to a utopian future. Such leaders are in very short supply, so their dreams are rarely realized. 

Could it be that instead of the good being the enemy of the best, the best is often the enemy of the good, as it blinds us to the giftedness of more ordinary people, who feel unable to mobilise their talents for the greater good? Because they are crippled by an image of an illusionary perfection that eludes them, they land up as spectators rather than participants, and once their quota of entertainment is saturated, they often opt out altogether. It’s a terrible waste of solid (if not amazing) ability.\

The theory of quiet leadership shifts the focus from leadership charisma to the tasks that leaders need to perform and the relationships they need to forge, to accomplish desired goals. Even formulating an inspiring vision is a task that can be systematically worked at. It’s a one step after the next approach to leadership, and it is within the reach of most who would like to make a difference. It has inspired me to write a book, Why the Tortoise Usually Wins: Biblical Reflections on Quiet Leadership, which Paternoster is due to publish next year.

As I wait for it to be published, I’m pondering a few questions. While quiet leaders are valued in business and educational circles (and some of the best CEO’s are pretty anonymous, albeit very effective leaders), does the church require more colourful leadership? If it does, what does it say about us and about our values? I suspect there is a lot to think about here.

Dr Brian Harris is the principal of Vose Seminary and Senior Pastor of Carey Community Church, in Perth, Australia. He can be contacted at Brian.Harris@vose.edu.au



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  • RJS

    This is a fascinating post.

    If churches aim to attract ever larger numbers of followers into the building – then I think “quiet leadership” won’t do it. This requires a level of flash.

    If churches aim to teach, build disciples, and enter into the mission of God in the world – then quiet leadership is incredibly powerful.

    So an incomplete and imperfect reflection:

    I think one of the problems we have today is a confusion of missions. Billy Graham was a great evangelist – he attracted large numbers, preached a simple evangelistic message, and he directed people into local churches for the day-to-day meat.

    We don’t have evangelists like this around today. But we do have some church leaders who speak a simple evangelistic message, bring people in, – but, perhaps, achieve less than optimal results because they can never direct them to a local church for the day-to-day meat … the simple evangelism becomes “the church.”

    Churches might benefit by leadership modeled on families and schools, rather than businesses and entertainment industries.

  • Rick

    Interesting post.

    I think we are fighting a problem on two fronts: the one RJS mentions in #1, but also the mindset of the general culture.

    If we redirect our perspective of church from a institution to more of a body/organism (and a family as RJS mentioned), the idea of a charismatic leadership does not seem so “necessary”.

    I also wonder if some of this is personality driven, whereas some people do get a better start in the faith with a charismatic leader, while others would do better with the quiet leadership. Either way, discipleship and maturing needs to be the goal. Perhaps some churches would benefit by a mixture of these types of leadership.

  • I’m partial to this book since it seems to describe how I have tended to lead. I’m not a flashy, charismatic leader, I’m cautious and contemplative, and yet I can be tenacious (or stubborn!). I get what the author is describing in Quiet Leadership, especially as I have lived it out one or the other in the small church where I lead…quietly. I’ll be getting the book for some friends, since there’s a bunch of us who are tired of flashy self-promoting leaders getting all the ears for how to lead well.

  • Phillip

    My friend and former teacher Randy Harris has noted that even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows that Jesus has almost no interest in leadership (and when he does it is almost always negative). But Jesus does talk a lot about following. Harris added that the one and only qualification for being a leader in the kingdom of God is that one follows well. Leadership emreges because one follows extroidinarily well, other Christians see it, and want to know how you do it.

    Perhaps this meshes well with the concept of quiet leadership.

  • Timothy

    Bruce Winter, formerly Warden of Tyndale House and a particular expert in Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence, has argued that leadership is not really a biblical concept.

    On a non biblical note, we have had a number or recent captains of the England cricket team. Michael Vaughan was quiet and very successful. He was followed by the supremely extrovert and totally unsuccessful Andrew Flintoff. He was followed by the equally extrovert and unsuccessful Kevin Pietersen. He was succeeded by the quiet and very successful Andrew Strauss so that England is the no 1 team in the world.

  • I’m not so sure quiet leadership is valued in business life – seems the ideal drives most leadership I’ve seen in secular life, unfortunately. Brian, you are the consummate quiet leader. A quiet leader, for my mind, is someone who it is a pleasure to work for; someone who is inspiring and empowering. Can wait to take a look at the new book.

  • I’m not so sure quiet leadership is valued in business life – seems the ideal drives most leadership I’ve seen in secular life, unfortunately. Brian, you are the consummate quiet leader. A quiet leader, for my mind, is someone who it is a pleasure to work for; someone who is inspiring and empowering. Can’t wait to take a look at the new book.

  • Thanks for sharing this. It seems in many ways like the church has been deceived into believing that its righteousness is based on saying the right words, accomplishing big goals, achieving great things, and growing physically larger, while the righteousness of God, manifested in Christ, is based on having ears to hear, slowness to speak, denying oneself, counting all as loss, and diminishing so that Christ may be made known in our weakness.

    In the end it seems like the most charismatic people are the best at projecting confidence and surety when what our post-christian society needs most is leaders who are willing to enter into quiet doubt and humble meekness with them.

  • Yes, yes, yes. Great article.

    “He suggests that instead of finding brilliant ways to solve problems, quiet leaders look for ways to live with problems, and are willing to aim at what is reasonably attainable rather than only at what is ideal. They model restraint, modesty and flexibility.”

    And they are engaged with their fellow brothers and sisters just as Brian intimates: http://infinitelyhigher.com/why-churches-die-a-lack-of-leadership-engagement/

  • Have to agree with everyone else– this is fascinating. While the flashy, dramatic leaders tend to pull in people, the quiet leaders (or the ones with deep relationships and character) are the ones that keep them there

  • Thanks for this post. You have really got me thinking.

    There’s an interesting concept around in small, organic church circles – that we should make disciples who make disciples who make disciples. In a sense everyone is expected to become a quiet leader. And nobody is expected or required to become a leader with extraordinary charisma.

    Despite this, it’s easy to identify people like Neil Cole, Frank Viola, Tony and Felicity Dale, Wolfgang Simson and a host of others who *do* have charisma and who use it to encourage the rest of us to lead too.

    So perhaps we need both quiet leaders and leaders with charisma.

  • Ron C.

    Western style Christianity is fixated upon the politics of the world and has adopted many, if not most, of its patterns. This obsession has plagued Christianity for many centuries.
    Christ did not lead from the center of power (Jerusalem or Rome) but from the margins. He was born into a marginalized part of society and lived His life out within that framework. Here are some snippets from an article by Len Hjalmarson entitled “Leading from the Margins” that far exceeds my ability to articulate.

    Leading From The Margins
    “The legacy of Constantine and of the Enlightenment gave us a church of the center, a church allied with the dominant forms of economic, intellectual, cultural and social life. This dominant text was marked by compromise. The church made claims to certainty, but also had to accept responsibility for certitudes in support of the empire. We ended with compromise, and rationalization of the Gospel that was “worldly wisdom,” devoid of life and power…

    In this postmodern transition we are increasingly suspicious of the scripting of reality that has been transmitted to us by a church immersed in culture. We are becoming aware that the most faithful expressions of kingdom life are not at the center, but at the margins of society, and that power subverts faithfulness. We shouldn’t be surprised; it has always been so…

    Many Christians (over the past centuries) have found ways to dissent from the coercive measures necessary to ensure social order in the name of Christ. What we are saying is that in the twilight of that world, we have an opportunity to discover what has and always is the case – that the church, as those called out by God, embodies a social alternative that the world cannot on its own know…

    As ministry decentralizes.. moves to homes, malls, pubs.. the internet.. fractal networks and reduced structure… and as we move away from positions and roles and titles to functional leadership, we are learning to lead from the margins.

    Greater numbers of people are providing leadership today because they are leading from unusual places. They often lack resources and formal training, but are willing to risk responding to the call of God in their lives. They often lack the legitimation of established structures and well-funded organizations, but they have the approval of God.

    While this movement to the margins is outwardly a shift in position, it is also a shift in the locus of authority. The choice to abandon worldly status is clearly articulated by Mark Strom in “Reframing Paul,” as a call to a new social reality: “Academic, congregational and denominational life functions along clear lines of rank, status and honor. We preach that the gospel has ended elitism, but we rarely allow the implications to go beyond ideas. Paul, however, actually stepped down in the world. Paul urged leaders to imitate his personal example of how the message of Jesus inverted status…” He refused to show favoritism towards individuals or ekklesia. The gospel offered him rights, but he refused them. Christ was not a means to a career. Yet the agendas and processes of maintaining and reforming evangelical life and thought remain the domain of professional scholars and clergy. Their ministry is their career. Dying and rising with Christ meant status reversal. In Paul’s case, he deliberately stepped down in the world. We must not romanticize this choice. He felt the shame of it amongst his peers and potential patrons, yet held it as the mark of his sincerity.

    Where once leadership was seen to come from the front, from appointed persons in defined roles, from paid professionals, and from the few to the many, now leadership often comes from the one walking beside us. Instead of the Wizard, it is Dorothy who has wisdom. Instead of Aragorn or Gandalf, it is Frodo whose obedience may be the fulcrum for change. The implication is a relocation of authority and the disentanglement of leadership from authority. We won’t attempt a definition of leadership; rather I invite you to come along on a partnership in discovery. We are searching for wisdom from the margins.

    “Fresh expressions of the church will come from the margins of society, where they will radically reshape both our understanding of the church and the gospel”
    As we live out new ways of leading faithful communities,
    •Instead of leading from over, we lead from among.
    •Instead of leading from certainty, we lead by exploration, cooperation and faith.
    •Instead of leading from power, we lead in emptiness depending on Jesus
    •Instead of leading from a plan, we lead with attention
    •Instead of leading as managers, we lead as mystics and poets, “speaking poetry in a prose flattened world” and articulating a common future
    •Instead of leading compulsively, we lead with inner freedom
    •Instead of leading from the center, we lead from the margins.”

    In case your interested, the full article can be found at http://nextreformation.com/wp-admin/resources/Margins.pdf

  • Brian Harrus

    Thanks for the comments. I have found them really helpful.

    Chris #10, totally agree that we need both charismatic and quiet leaders. I suspect that Paul, despite his protestations to the contrary, was a classic heroic leader, and he certainly made an enormous difference. So does the church benefit from hugely talented leaders… It’s a no brainer. Of course it does.

    That said, I don’t feel any need to go on a campaign for heroic leaders. They are more than able to do that on their own. My concern is for the vast number of less obviously gifted individuals who are more than capable of being very effective leaders. Over the last 20 years I have seen what I consider to be the disempowerment of the laity (horrible term). In far too many instances this has reduced Christianity to a spectator sport… Something that seems a long way from the message of Jesus.

    I think pendulums swing back and forth over time. We went through a period where we undermined strong leadership and in my part of the world, (Australia and New Zealand), we were cursed with what was known as the ‘tall poppie syndrome’ (knock anyone who rises above the rest back into place)… It wasn’t helpful. But now we are starting to face the opposite danger. And with it there is a terrible waste of the gifting of capable people, who though not superstars, can make a real difference, and that includes a difference in the area of leadership. And so it is that I want to sing the praises of quiet leaders and to encourage those who don’t think they could be leaders, to think again, and perhaps to aspire to become quiet leaders.

  • RJS


    You commented:

    Over the last 20 years I have seen what I consider to be the disempowerment of the laity (horrible term). IN far too many instances this has reduced Christianity to a spectator sport… Something that seems a long way from the message of Jesus.

    I think this hits a very important point. You pinpoint something that has been bothering me for quite a while. I think you are dead on in identifying the trend. It isn’t universal of course – but there is something of a trend toward strong leaders and followers as the “ideal.” One characteristic is that these strong leaders hire staff they can control, fail to work with brothers and sisters as equals, disempower the laity and reduce Christianity to a spectator sport for the majority. They also tend to devalue real education and mentorship both from the pulpit and in the church because the goal is not to raise up brothers and sisters to stand alongside as equals in the mission of God, but to acquire followers (in religious talk it would usually be phrased as “reach the lost”).

    As a 50-something lay Christian, I am finding church less and less important and less and less relevant to my life and faith. I will never be the follower of a man, and as the trend is developing the laity cannot stand alongside as mature Christian participants and contributors. We no longer expect lay Christians to grow up. This is a huge change in American (and apparently Australian) evangelicalism over the last 20 or 30 years.

  • Brian Harris

    RJS, really interested that you identify yourself as a 50 something lay Christian, as I think that it is this age group that is perhaps the most disempowered and they have been around long enough to know that another reality is possible.

  • MD

    you say “I am finding church less and less important and less and less relevant to my life and faith.” Do you mean the organization called church? I continue to contend that the organization is nothing more than a structure to be set up to support the people in being the church. In most cases, the organization and its leaders dominate the people instead of giving them wings. Almost every preceding comment is based on the idea that the organization is the church. And in my opinion, the comments are recognizing that the people are being marginalized by the organization and by professional staff who are seen as leaders.

  • Loved the post and have really appreciated the comments. May i recomend two books that have helped me as an Introverted leader?

    The first is “Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture” by Adam McHugh. I read this book in two days and cried at various points as some of my own struggles were written about in this book.

    The second is a secular book, one which RJS reviewed here a few weeks back, entitled “Quiet: The power of Introversion in a world that can’t stop talking” by Susan Cain. She has a TED talk which is a synopsis of the book. It is a fascinating social scientific look at the qualities Introverts bring as leaders.

    Once again, thanks everyone for the comments and to Brian for the post.

  • Jesse

    I would imagine that the church conference circuit only contributes to the boisterous and flashy trend. I think a great number of pastors struggle with or repress their own desires to be a voice for change in our culture. Attending conferences where very charismatic leaders’ successes are put on display necessarily call others to repeat that success.

    We need more conferences with quiet leaders. The challenge will just be finding them, since they aren’t making much public noise.

  • Thanks a lot for this Brian. (You may remember Trish and me? You were our pastor in Mt Roskill, NZ.)

    Years ago I read a management book called ‘Quiet Leadership’ by David Rock. It started a personal revolution in the way I approached leadership as a cross-cultural missionary in the South Pacific Islands. Among other things, this book espouses leadership by asking searching questions and offering support to help people own and resolve their own issues, rather than giving specific answers or directions.

    My main role as a missionary is developing indigenous leaders in the Islands. Leadership in these cultures (and churches) is strongly feudal – dictatorial, never questioned or held accountable. Sadly, noise, notoriety, and posturing are often equated with spirituality, and one needs to have adventures like Moses to truly be serving God. In this context it is easy to see how the Holy Spirit’s work of expanding Christ’s Kingdom is capped by the natural abilities (or lack of them) of solo leaders, and the expectations placed on them by their people.

    Quiet leadership reverses that and encourages a ‘bottom up movement’ where ordinary believers become motivated as seekers and followers of God. There are no ‘super stars’. Instead, every ordinary believer is learning to discern the Holy Spirit’s leading as they interact with God’s Word; with each other; and with the needs in their community. We are proving the value of this in the Islands (particularly in Tonga) where we have many small home discipleship groups in the villages comprising Methodists, Mormons, SDAs, Pentecostals, Catholics, etc., and who are making a major impact for good on their society and steadily bringing biblical renewal to their various traditional churches.

    I have ordered my copy of ‘Leading Quietly’ and look forward to ‘Why the Tortoise Usually Wins: Biblical Reflections on Quiet Leadership’ becoming available. God bless you Brian.

  • RJS

    Jesse (#17),

    I heard a pastor planning to plant a church comment, after attending a conference on church planting, about the typical theme of men reporting how they had started a church with a roll of duct tape, a closet, and five people and five years later had many thousands and several sites for worship. The sad part in my mind is that this inspires envy rather than sorrow. I know another couple who 10+ years after beginning, with a lot of ups and downs, have planted a solid, stable church doing a lot of good in their community. But they have on a few occasions commented on their “failure” … because they didn’t reach 3000 in 3 years. (Actually they consider their church plant a success, and I agree … They focus on individuals, and the community, not on numbers.)

    We’ve been infected by the same macho one-ups-manship that infects the world. I live in this kind of environment, dominated by entreprenurial ambition, self-promotion, and one-ups-manship, in my professional world in the University and it pains me to see the attitude stick its fingers into the church.

  • Brian Harris

    Graham (#18), great to hear from you and of course I remember you and Trish and the fantastic work you do developing indigenous leaders in the South Pacific Islands. You note that you are developing a bottom up movement, where quiet leaders are slowly but surely making a difference in their communities. In doing so you exemplify what it means to be a quiet leader as year in and year out you have hung in there and the fruit of that faithfulness is becoming increasingly obvious.

    And that is exactly why we need more quiet leaders.

  • Robert

    I’m not sure the charismatic leader is the best at all. What happens when they move on? I’ve seen a charismatic minister build a church up, and I’ve seen that church stagnate after she left because they were all dependent on her. I’ve seen ministers trying to be charismatic, and just producing chaos and confusion. Surely the best way is to encourage other peoples’ gifts, and to build up something with the strength to last. That takes time and patience.