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Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing by Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr.

 

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Everyday Ambiguity

Arrogant authors who come across as know-it-all gurus can be found on many best-seller lists. Joseph Badaracco asks more questions than he gives answers, and his new book, Leading Quietly, belongs on the best-seller lists. Badaracco spent four years studying the behavior of individuals who took everyday actions that represent a form of leadership that gets little attention, but matches well with what most of us face as we conduct our business lives. Here’s an excerpt:

“ … the vast majority of problems calling for leadership are everyday situations. These situations don’t come labeled as strategic or critical, and they aren’t reserved for people at the top of organizations. Anyone can face these challenges at almost any time. Hard choices don’t involve ‘time out’ from everyday life, but are embedded in its very fabric.
Imagine, for example, that you could hover over a town, lift the roofs off houses, and other buildings, and watch what is going on inside. In one home, a couple is arguing about moving the man’s father into a nursing home. In an office, two government officials are talking quietly about investigating a long-term employee rumored to be pilfering funds. The head of a hospital emergency room stares at a spreadsheet, wondering if she can avoid imminent reductions in the number of indigent patients her unit treats. A loan officer at a bank has just discovered a serious accounting error: Should he report it and create an organizational mess or just leave things alone?
These are everyday problems, routine and unremarkable – or, at least, that’s how they look at first. But closer inspection reveals something else. Ostensibly ordinary problems can be incredibly messy, complicated, ambiguous – and important. As such, they are real leadership challenges.
Take the case of the loan officer. What could be more mundane, even tedious, than an accounting problem? But once the loan officer stopped and looked carefully at the issue, he found there was nothing simple about it. Why, for example, had such a large problem been overlooked for so long? One dismaying possibility was that senior management had buried the error and wanted it to stay that way. Bringing the problem to light could cost a colleague a job and cause one of the bank’s clients to go bankrupt. But concealing the problem would be a violation of the law and the loan officer’s sense of professionalism and integrity. In this case and many others, the ‘everydayness’ of problems disguises their real complexity.
The loan officer, like men and women in organizations everywhere, was dealing with just one of a multitude of difficult, commonplace challenges. What do you do, for example, when you don’t have the time or the resources to do what you really believe you should do? What if doing the right thing involves bending or breaking the rules? What if a situation is so murky and uncertain you don’t even know what the right thing is? What is someone with a lot of power is pressuring you to do something wrong? Questions like these define the complex territory of responsible, everyday leadership.
The loan officer did the right thing – but in ways that don’t fit the heroic model. He found a way to disclose the problem, get the loan restructured, protect his colleague’s job, and avoid risking his own. He accomplished this without doing anything dramatic or heroic. Instead, he followed many of the guidelines presented in this book. His efforts were cautious and well planned, he moved shrewdly and kept his political antennae fully extended, and he bent some of the bank’s rules in the process of doing what was right. In short, he resolved his problem through a distinctive, unorthodox, and extremely useful way of thinking and acting.”

Leading Quietly describes the actions of many people who lead in ways that don’t often stand out. In many situations, this style of leadership can be extremely effective. Badaracco provides practical, real-life, advice in this book, and leaves readers confident and comfortable in taking paths that may be anything but direct.

Steve Hopkins, March 13, 2002

 

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