quiet power

Photo: Unsplash, Jon Tyson

Once upon a time, when it seemed brash CEOs could do no wrong — confident, vocal personas were the gold standard for leadership.

But recent times have been less kind to this breed. “Frequently, the most egotistical person is chosen as the leader of an organisation,” is the biting citation a 2022 paper in Scientific Reports proffers of findings that the higher an executive’s charisma and presentation ratings, the greater their psychopathic traits.

Meanwhile, a piece in Administrative Science Quarterly passes judgement thus: Self-aggrandising chief executives tend to make riskier investments, pursue grandiose strategies, and create fluctuating performance through an unconstrained exercise of power.

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Prolific personalities Trump and Musk are two names most associated with loud leadership. So imagine their antithesis: Quiet power, where head honchos bend buried in the doing of the work. 

“The wielding of quiet power entails getting support and respect from others behind the scenes, through actions rather than words”, says Andy Yap, academic director of INSEAD’s Centre for Organisational Research. The term conjures memories of his grandmother, he adds: “She used to say, the empty barrel makes the most noise.”

quiet power
Photo: Unsplash, Josh Calabrese

Hush now

Gran’s favourite adage has taken on new significance in an attention-saturated world where loudness is losing its lustre

“The best leaders are introverts who possess a quiet power,” declares a Harvard course launched as recently as last year, promising to unlock tranquil captaincy in the corporate world, where “being reserved isn’t always looked upon as a leadership trait”.

Meanwhile, research on Singapore leaders finds humility indivisible from approval. Modest leaders aspire not to be important or praiseworthy, conclude the paper’s authors, citing survey responses that found leaders humble if they championed collective good. This is not particularly surprising, they say, “given that Singapore is a highly collectivist society”.

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In fact, Google “quiet power” and nearly every result the Internet throws up will revolve around former Wall Street lawyer Susan Cain’s book on introverts by the same name. “Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, Rosa Parks — all these people were quiet and shy,” she told Harvard Business Review. “And in a way, their power derived from the fact that they weren’t about their ego.”

Of course, not everyone with quiet power is an introvert. Neither is quiet power the exclusive domain of quiet people. Nevertheless, from Cain’s watershed publication flowed a litany of research tying classic introvert traits to quiet power outcomes: careful listening, increased trust, and better bottom lines

“By nature, [those with quiet power] tend to be more receptive to ideas and consider them thoroughly. They are more likely to praise their team than take the credit themselves,” says behavioural economist Nick Powdthavee, an economics professor at Nanyang Technological University. “This can result in an organisation being much more dynamic and resilient to change.”

Power to the people

Quiet traits unite the luminaries on this year’s The Peak Power List, none of whom are typical magnates and bigwigs.

Instead, their influence is cultivated through longstanding advocacy of social issues that offer little in the way of fame and fortune: Corinna Lim on women’s equality; Winston Chow on global warming; Yvonne Tham on dementia-friendly access to the arts; Simon Chesterman on ethics in artificial intelligence; Abhimanyau Pal for people with disabilities; Mohamed Irshad on religious harmony.

That these chiefs fly under the radar is a feature, not a bug, of their approach to influence — as Chow, the first Singaporean elected to the United Nations’ panel on climate change, sums up: “Talk is cheap.”

For those who are not natural self promoters, the promise of quiet leaders gaining prominence paints a comforting future picture in which those less inclined to market themselves suffer no penalty at work — where competence speaks for itself without the requisite crowing on LinkedIn.

But this is premature. “It takes time for people to recognise quiet power,” says organisational psychologist Richard Arvey, an adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore Business School’s department of management and organisation. “It needs to evolve over time.”

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“We need to rethink how we incentivise leadership,” adds Dr Powdthavee. “Organisations need to give individuals who have a more thoughtful approach to problems more opportunities and room to lead.”

Still, as workplace observers and the rest of us are discovering, the blessed silence of quiet power in a noisy world is becoming harder to ignore. So meditate on this: Unlike loud leadership and its holy grail of self promotion at scale, quiet power is amassed incrementally, action by action, interaction by interaction, like the painstaking cementing of slabs to form a solid citadel. 

If each of these bricks is a moment spent in service of others, then anyone, even the average worker bee, can build up a bastion of influence over the course of a lifetime. Compared to billionaire CEOs, this might seem like a tiny amount of sway — about as much as the next person can expect to hold over family, friends, colleagues.

But it is power, nonetheless, that is overlooked, ignored, or let lay dormant, that could very well alter the future of the universe.

For more stories on The Peak Power List, visit here.