Is there a place for quiet leaders?

Posted by on Dec 15, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

In 2013 Paternoster published my book, The Tortoise Usually Wins. It works from the simple thesis that while we often assume that leaders need to be larger than life charismatic figures, the reality often turns out to be different. There is a place for those who are quiet leaders. Sometimes they approach the task of leadership hesitantly, even reluctantly. But they often go on to make a significant difference.

Many people have found the book helpful and it has now had a second print run and has also been translated into Indonesian. Here is how the preface to the book starts. If you have written yourself off as a possible leader, why not give the book a read, and see if God is challenging you to be a quiet leader…

Some people seem born to lead. It is hard to dispute this. Observe the playground of your local kindergarten and you will quickly pick those kids who delight in taking charge of situations. Without consciously thinking about it, they decide which game will be played, who will be included and the role each will fulfil. Their lives often reflect a comparable trajectory, as time and again they find themselves surrounded by enthusiastic followers, happily travelling in the same direction.

This book is not written for such people. Of course they are welcome to read it, and who knows, they might glean a pearl of wisdom here and there, but something inside of them will be saying, ‘I’m not really a leader like that. I’m sure leadership is a lot more spontaneous than that.’ And for them it is. I bear such leaders no malice. To the contrary, I delight in their giftedness, assurance and confidence in leadership. It is just that I have not written this book for them.

The leaders I had in mind as I worked away at the keyboard whilst on sabbatical from Vose Seminary and serving as a visiting professor at Carson Newman University, are a different breed. They are reluctant leaders. They often wish they could hand the mantle of leadership over to someone else, and if a suitable opportunity arose, they probably would. They might not be sure how they landed up in a position of leadership, and wonder if they have what it takes. But they are willing to give it a go. They would like a little help as they travel in unfamiliar territory, and while they understand that trite formulas don’t work, they are open and willing to learn. But they are sure of one thing. If they are suddenly told that they have to become superhuman, heroic leaders, they will put the book to one side and gloomily reflect that it is just not going to happen.

If I have targeted reluctant leaders it is because I have noticed a breed of leaders who make a significant difference to their organization, yet they do it quietly. Their success is linked more to their persistence, tenacity and flexibility, than to their charisma. While the latter is sometimes present, it is often not. These are the leaders you don’t necessarily notice at dinner parties, and you certainly wouldn’t pick them out in a supermarket line, yet day after day they go about making a difference.

I first noticed it when I reflected on the impact of the ministry of several pastors I know. Some are in the charismatic leader category, and it was not hard to figure out why they have been successful. But several were not. Indeed, some of them seem dour and hesitant. But their track record of successful ministry is beyond dispute. Time and again they have gone into difficult situations and turned them around. Success did not come overnight, but it certainly came. No doubt the work of God’s Spirit had a fair amount to do with it, but God always works with people, and uses what they offer. And I noticed that these quieter leaders often offer similar things. They remind me of Aesop’s story of the tortoise and the hare. There is no mistaking that they are aligned to the tortoise. Steady plodders, knowing the route they need to go, keeping at it in spite of the odds, and declining the seductive detours that the hare finds irresistible, they make it across the finishing line, and do so time and time again. I was intrigued, and so began my study of quiet leadership.

I am more convinced than ever that while for a small minority leadership comes spontaneously and easily, it is within the grasp of a far larger number of people. Indeed, leadership is not magical. It is about knowing that something matters, and that you need to help a group attain it. If the only way they will get there is if you do the leading, so be it, lead. When we break leadership down into the component parts, it is a step at a time process. And this book tries to walk through some of the more important steps.

Well what do you think? If you are not a natural charismatic leader, could it be that you are called to be a quiet leader? I’d encourage you not to brush the question off too quickly – even if you would like to…

As far as this blog goes, our post on Friday will take a seasonal turn, and we will start to focus in on the Christmas season.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. I spent several yeares as the sole pastor of a small church. It was hard, tough and required a lot ‘punching bag’ style of leadership (after the hits have stopped, you are still there). It suited my personality type, quiet, unnassuming, low-key and stubborn. But the only books on leadership that I could find were all written for the Charismatic, out-the-front, natural born leader. All of them seemed to make the (unspoken) assertion that unless you were like that, then you were ‘a leader in name only’ (to coin a phrase from one such author).
    I went to be an associate Pastor of another church, where the Senior Pastor was the Charismatic, high-powered, type, and expected me to be exactly the same, there was no room for negotiation, and I was told that unless I could be that type of Pastor, then I was unsuitable for ministry. Needless to say, I didn’t hang around for very long. I’m not sure that there is a place for me in that world. The overwhelming expectation I have encountered in ministry is that there is no room for my personality type.

    • I think it is an assumption that many work with, and we are all the poorer for it. Ironically, quiet leaders often make fantastic associates to more charismatic leaders. They work away in the background getting important things into place, while the more charismatic leader fronts up to the crowd. When both have a real respect for each other and the importance of what each is doing, it is a powerful combination.

      One thing I argue in the book is that we need to think of leaderships (plural), rather than leadership (singular). Settings where different leadership styles can flourish can be very rich places. I am really sad that your setting didn’t allow for this, and hope that after some of the hurt of that settles, that you will be able to find a place where you will be able to serve and where your gifting will be valued.

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