Quiet Leadership – a summary disguised as a book review

This book was strongly recommended to me by a colleague whose opinion I thought and think very highly of. He is a techie with broad knowledge and the best generalised problem solving skills I’ve ever seen. He’s also much more than an uber-geek, with wide and varied interests. So I was expecting good things from this book. Maybe too good.

Because on first read it was actually very disappointing.

The book is badly written. It is repetitive and has a fetish for complex models with trendy acronyms that spell out superficially relevant words – CREATE and FEELING just give me flashbacks to my days of marking undergrad essays. There’s an attempt to ground the book in academic research, but the conclusions of this research are generalised in a fashion so sweeping Andrew Gelman would pop an artery. Comparing the way the Grand Canyon was formed to the way we learn is metaphorically true (maybe?), but to blithely extend this metaphor and conclude that erosion is the same reason it is hard to learn new habits is a bridge too far.

But I take my friend’s opinion seriously. So I decided to let the book simmer for a little while and then come back to it. A little while turned into months, and now years, but I’ve finally come back to it. In that intervening time I’ve taken on team leadership roles and seen the modus operandi of a half dozen other organisations, some more intimately, some less so. And so in that intervening time I’ve also changed.

What do I think of the book now?

Well, it’s still not great. But it’s not a total waste of time. Ostensibly and aspirationally a guide to leading others through change and performance improvement, Quiet Leadership is much more general – it’s a guide to listening, talking and communicating.

In this role the book is worth reading, a balanced 2 stars. This summary is my attempt to distil out the good bits. If you want more, well – for that you should read the book or another.

There are many different kinds of conversations. Professionally, the following four are pretty comprehensive:

  1. Providing leadership (down, up and sideways – as a leader, to a leader, and to a colleague)
  2. Making collective decisions (i.e. getting to the best consensus possible)
  3. Providing expertise
  4. Receiving expertise

Ostensibly, Quiet Leadership is only about the first, but it actually provides a general framework for conversation that is also useful for the second and third.

In each of these conversation types, the starting point is that we need to help the counterparty think as clearly as possible. Doing this has a number of advantages – they will have greatest investment in the conversation and its outcomes, the conversation will best use their expertise as well as ours, the immediate quality of any decision will be better and they will also feel heard, be more motivated and better enabled to perform in future situations. Us and them, we, will be fully and mutually invested in the jointly agreed outcome.

Of course, making sure that I help the other party think as clearly as possible doesn’t mean I don’t contribute my expertise, needs and perspective to the conversation. But I am strongly biased to do this anyway, we all are, so would do so anyway. Deliberately putting the emphasis on their thinking first helps ensure it is fully incorporated regardless.

As a framework, the Quiet Leadership model is made up of three parts: listening, speaking and an ornate process to help ensure the best possible conversational flow. The book also has a few lists of seeds and starting points to various types of conversation which help ensure all angles of an issue are drawn out. I’ll include some of these as a fourth part at the end.

How to listen

It’s all too easy when listening to forget that we are hearing their words through our own filters. This can bias us.

At the most simple level, we can listen but not hear them because we are too focused on achieving some goal we have, like persuading them buy our widgets. We can also listen but not hear because one of our filters is what we expect of them.

If Adam is having problems with a flat mate and he (Adam) is someone who has always been a bit disorganised in the past then I’m likely to assume that this has some bearing on the problematic flat mate. Likewise, if I’ve just been through a difficult family situation this might also have some bearing. I see the world through darker glasses when I’m tired. Obviously, these are all true. The insight is that if I don’t acknowledge them deliberately to myself then I risk ignoring their influence in the conversation I am trying to have.

More broadly, the simple and simplistic message is that if I assume Adam is capable of handling the situation on his own then I might be right, and if I assume that he isn’t then I might also be right, because both of these assumptions have a strong bearing on how I engage in discussion with him.

Thus, David Rock has a couple of suggestions for better listening that I should follow:

  • First, assume the counterparty has the capability required of them
  • Next, take a deliberate step back and generate some self-awareness about my own agenda, my filters and my emotional state

How to speak

In the context of Quiet Leadership, the goal of speaking is to improve others’ thinking. To put it bluntly, this just means speaking clearly, but David Rock draws out two factors that contribute significantly: succinctness and specificity.

By being succinct, I will be clear to myself and others what my message is. This is table stakes. I will also make the smallest possible demand of the listener’s attention and energy.

By being specific, I give the listener the detail they need to understand my message. “That was great” is succinct, but specific detail is needed for the other person to do anything with it.

Being succinct and specific also requires more effort from me as a speaker. This leads to David’s third point about speaking, which is that we must be generous to the listener. As well as being succinct and specific, I should choose my words deliberately, not be afraid to pause and listen carefully to others.

One specific (ha) suggestion is to think about what I’m trying to explain, picture it visually in my own mind and then describe that picture. “A stitch in time saves nine” and so forth. Doing this is a generous way of being succinct because it means that my listener doesn’t have to build their own visual model, saving them time and energy. It also helps ensure clear communication and might be a first step to specificity, although a description of a general visual model is probably only a first step.

The challenges associated with communicating clearly are even more important when it is written, not spoken. This is a good reason to convey negative or mixed feedback only in person, or at least by phone, and likewise for any complex explanation, discussion or negotiation.

Conversational flow

Conversation is much more than listening and speaking – the higher level process of the conversation is its flow, and shaping this also helps ensure the conversation is successful.

Firstly, being clear about the Goal of the conversation is critical. A conversation might be about a problem, a strategic vision, a detailed plan or something else, but having personal clarity about the goal (whatever it is) will help ensure the conversation is efficient and effective.

Placement is making sure every one in the conversation is clear about the immediate focus and objective, how this relates to the wider conversational goal and also their role within this part of the conversation. By deliberately stopping and checking that everyone is “on the same wavelength” the conversation can move forward efficiently and the participants won’t realise later that they collectively forgot an important topic.

For example, if someone is brainstorming how to get faster results on a new project they’re leading, they might have a long list of questions that they want to discuss: who the right team members are, how they (the project leader) should prioritise it versus other tasks, how the project relates to others and what the specific project objectives should be. There might also be others that need to be answered. Placement is being clear about the current focus.

Opportunities for placement are also ideal opportunities to recap what has been discussed and agreed, paraphrasing as necessary. This helps ensure everyone is agreed on what is agreed and allows any differences to be clearly scoped and constrained, all with the goal of effective, efficient conversation and consensus.

Closely related to Placement is Permission. Permission is explicitly checking with the other party that now is the right time to have the conversation I intend. If the conversation is long or the Placement changes it is important to re-check this as well. Failing to do this can lead to conversations wandering in circles as old issues get revisited time and time again.

For example, if the goal of the conversation was to figure out how to enter a new market, but the discussion so far has been focused on why this market was selected, then explicitly shifting gears (“so far we’ve mostly been talking about the overall marketing strategy, is it OK to drill in on the specifics for Tanzania now?”) renews the counterparty’s engagement, explicitly signposts the change in topic and also checks that it is OK to move on.

A conversational grab bag


Quiet Leadership is full of lists and models. To be honest, most of them just make the book longer and woollier. But some of them are also very useful. This section is a short selection of the useful ones. I’ve tried to combine similar lists into one and filter out duplicate content but YMMV. If you want more you should read the book.

Acknowledging others contributions, to the conversation and more widely, is critical. In part, this is because we usually live up to the standards we set ourselves or which others set for us (“how to listen”, above), but also because it’s only fair. Here are a number of reasons to acknowledge someone:

  • With appreciation – e.g. for completing a work package on time
  • With validation – e.g. for giving a task a lot of thought and effort
  • With recognition – of their skills and expertise
  • With confirmation – that they are the right person for a project or task
  • With gratitude – thanking them for the effort and time they have invested

In the same vein, people can be encouraged to self-acknowledge in response to questions they are asked:

  • What did you do well, and what did you discover about yourself as a result?
  • What were the highlights of this project and what did you learn?
  • What went well and would you like to talk about how to do more of this?
  • What did you do well and what impact do you think this has had on everyone else?

Analogously, there are also many ways of drawing out the counterparty’s expertise, goals or ideas. As examples, here are some questions that can be used for this:

  • What are some possible paths we could take from here?
  • Do you want to explore a few different ideas for how to move this forward?
  • How could I best help you from here?
  • Can you see some different angles we could look at this from?
  • What are the broader implications of being able to do this now?
  • What impact has this learning had on you?
  • Where else might this new capability be useful?

So that’s Quiet Leadership. Since this entire post is one long summary I don’t really have any concluding remarks to make!

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