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The most effective moral

leadership, it turns out,

is provided by people

who work behind the

scenes for quiet victories.


by Joseph L Badaraccojr.


especially great moral leaders. Think of MartinLuther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Gandhi. We

exalt these individuals as role models and celebrate their-' \'\ . , .r •• achievements.They represent, we proclaim, the gold stan-

' ' dardof ethical behavior.Or do they? I don't ask this because I question the value

of ethical behavior - far from it. I ask because over thecourse of my career as a specialist in business ethics, Ihave observed that the most effective moral leaders in thecorporate world often sever the connection betweenmorality and public heroism. These men and womenaren't high-profile champions of right over wrong anddon't want to be. They don't spearhead large-scale ethicalcrusades. They move patiently, carefully, and incremen-tally. They right - or prevent - moral wrongs in the work-place inconspicuously and usually without casualties. Ihave come to call these people quiet leaders because theirmodesty and restraint are in large measure responsiblefor their extraordinary achievements. And since many big

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problems can only be resolved by a long series of smallefforts, quiet leadership, despite its seemingly slow pace,often turns out to be the quickest way to make the cor-poration-and the world-a better place.

In this article, I explore the findings of my four-yeareffort to understand how quiet leaders see themselves,think about ethical problems, and make effective deci-sions. Although all names have been changed, the anec-dotes below are based on more than 150 case studies that1 gathered from several sources, including direct observa-tion, participation in situations as an adviser, and papersand accounts by many of my older MBA students whocame from corporate positions with serious managementresponsibilities. The stories have convinced me that whilecertain ethical challenges require direct, public action,quiet leadership is the best way to do the right thing inmany cases. That's because quiet leadership is practical,effective, and sustainable. Quiet leaders prefer to picktheir battles and fight them carefully rather than go downin a blaze of glory for a single, dramatic effort.

Two Ethical ApproachesTo understand why quiet moral leadership works so well,consider what can result from a public display of heroism.Rebecca Waide was a manager at a small regional bank.Convinced that a set of lending policies was exploitative,she made an appointment with her boss and quicklylaunched into a made-for-Hollywood speech about therights of the poor. "I can almost swear that while 1 wastalking, there was inspirational music in the background,"she says. "I must have sounded like Sally Field in NormaRae. I wanted to defend the oppressed."

It didn't work. Waide's emotionalism and lack of care-ful preparation undermined her credibility. The com-pany thought its policies were sound, particularly forriskier customers, and her boss didn't appreciate the lec-ture. Not surprisingly, the company's lending policies re-mained unchanged.

Now consider Barry Nelan, another banker whosecase I studied. He was going through files one day whenhe discovered that a company had been charged too lit-tle interest on a bank loan for more than five years. Hewondered if the bank's executives, some of whom weregood friends with the borrower's managers, knew aboutthe problem but were conveniently overlooking it. Hefeared that his boss, who had authorized the loan, might

JosephL Badaracco,Jr., is the John Shad Professor of Busi-ness Ethics at Harvard Business School in Boston. He hastaught courses on strategy, general management, and busi-ness ethics in the school's MBA and executive programs. Heis the author of Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guideto Doing the Right Thing, scheduled to be published byHarvard Business School Press in February 2002.

be scapegoated if the problem came to the attentionof others.

At first, Nelan saw only two choices. He could reportthe error through official channels and let the chips fallwhere they might, or he could leave things alone. Butthen he came up with an alternative: He took the matterdirectly to his boss. His boss's first instinct was to reburythe problem, but Nelan said that if they couldn't find ananswer, he would be forced to inform bank executivesabout the mistake. They sat down with the client and re-structured the loan, then reported the problem and thesolution to the executives. Nelan was careful, patient, andpolitically astute throughout the process. He managed tobenefit himself and the organization while protecting hiscolleague's job. He was the quintessential quiet leader.

Operating InstructionsMy research suggests that quiet moral leaders follow fourbasic rules in meeting ethical challenges and making de-cisions. Although not always used together, the rulesconstitute an indispensable tool kit that can help quietleaders work out the dilemmas they face. Some tacticsmay seem a little too clever or even ethically dubious.Certainly, few people would want to work at jobs wheresuch moves constitute business as usual. Nevertheless,these guidelines often prove critical when leaders havereal responsibilities to meet.

The rules serve another purpose, too. By offering in-sight into how an organization's unknown soldiers achievetheir moral victories, the guidelines can help top execu-tives foster the development of quiet leaders among mid-dle managers. Tactics they can use include setting exam-ples of quiet leadership in meetings; going out ofthe wayto praise and reward individuals who take quiet, sus-tained, effective approaches to problems; and appointingtop managers who are themselves quiet leaders. Such ac-tions send powerful messages about the right way to dealwith difficult, messy problems.

Put things off till tomorrow. When ethical dilemmasheat up, quiet leaders often look for ways to buy time. Care-ful execution of this tactic can spell the difference betweensuccess and failure. The passage of time allows turbulentwaters to calm. It also lets leaders analyze the subtle waysin which individuals and events interact-it lets them lookfor patterns and watch for opportunities to arise from thefiow of events. More important, sound moral instincts havea chance to emerge. Of course, there are situations-such aswhen a defective product is about to be shipped or a mis-leading financial report is about to be released-that call forimmediate action. But the drama of do-or-die situationscan lead us to exaggerate the frequency with which theyarise. The vast majority of practical ethical challenges fac-ing most managers are mundane and subtle, calling for theungiamorous virtues of patiience and staying power.


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To see how quiet leaders create buffer zones that per-mit them to put their unglamorous virtues to use, let'slook at a quiet leader who succeeded in thinking clearlyand moving at a deliberate pace, even though top man-agement was breathing down his neck. Kyle Williamshad recently become a branch president for a small re-gional bank in Maine. He was excited about a job thatgave him visibility and profit-and-loss responsibility. Theonly drawback to the promotionwas the intense financial pres- jsure on the bank and its seniorexecutives. Williams was toldthat if the stock price didn't risequickly, the bank was likely tobe bought and dismantled by alarger bank.

Among the 55 employeesWilliams inherited were fourchronic underperformers, includ-ing a 56-year-old teller who wasnotoriously rude to customersand raised the issue of age dis-crimination whenever her per-formance was questioned. An-other of the four was a widowwho had been at the bank 30years. She was recovering fromcancer surgery but was reluctantto go on disability. Finally, therewere the two lead loan officers:One lacked initiative and imagi-nation; he did everything by the book. The other had morepotential, but even the promise of a performance bonusdidn't fire her up.

Williams was eager to reduce expenses, but he wantedto avoid shortsighted cost-cutting measures and to befair to longtime employees. He thought firing the fourunderperformers, as was tacitly but clearly expected ofhim, might embroil the company in legal problems. Heneeded time to persuade his boss to take a different ap-proach, such as transferring the underperformers or en-couraging them to take early retirement. If there hadbeen less stress on the bank, Williams would have openlyargued for moving slowly. But given the pressures, a re-quest for more time could have prompted the bank man-agement to replace him with someone willing to cleanhouse more quickly. So he took steps to divert attentionwhile he postponed action. Call it game playing if youwill, but Williams's games were hardly trivial amuse-ments. They were tactics that allowed him to find a "goodenough" solution to the bank's problems.

There are two kinds of time buying: quick fixes andstrategic stalling. Everyday dodges such as,"rve got some-one on the other line-can I get back to you on that?"canbuy a few hours or a couple of days; such gambits have

Before they take stands

or tackle tough

problems^ quiet

leaders calculate how

much political capital

they are putting at risk

and what they can

expect in return.

helped countless managers whose backs were against thewall. But Williams needed weeks to rectify the situationhe inherited. His situation called for strategic stalling.

The fundamental line of attack in strategic stalling is todot all the i's and cross all the t's. As a first step, Williamstossed his boss a bone by cutting a few unnecessaryexpenses (badly managed operations often have plenty ofthose). He then sought legal advice on his personnel

issues - after all, one employeehad already raised the issue ofage discrimination. He also gothuman resources involved, amove that gained him weeks.Then he began to raise strategicquestions: Do we have the ap-propriate contingency plans inplace? Are there more optionswe should evaluate?

Strategic stalling gave Wil-liams time to resolve al! the is-sues he faced. He never caughtthe teller being rude, but he firedher for leaving large amountsof cash unattended. The widowwent on permanent disability.After pep talks, quotas, and in-centives failed to motivate thetwo loan officers, Williams threat-ened to fire them. One quit; theother, galvanized into action, be-came a first-rate loan officer.

Pick your battles. Political capital is the hard currencyof organizational life. You earn it by establishing a repu-tation for getting things done and by having a network ofpeople who can appreciate and reward your efforts. Po-litical capital is hard to accumulate and devilishly easy todissipate. That's why quiet leaders invest it astutely anduse it with care. Before they take stands or tackle toughproblems, quiet leaders calculate how much political cap-ital they are putting at risk and what they can expect in re-turn. In other words, they pick their battles wisely.

For an example of how not to squander political capi-tal, consider Michele Petryni, the public relations man-ager at a large Washington, DC, law firm. Petryni stood inastonishment one day as she was refused admittance toa meeting with several law partners. The purpose ofthemeeting was to deal with a very sensitive problem inthe firm, and for several weeks Petryni had been workingwith one of the partners on a solution. Now the partnerwas telling her that a "nonpartner female" would stir upthe brew.

Petryni was shocked and furious. Her first impulse wasto threaten a discrimination lawsuit. But Petryni was alsoshrewd. She understood that most ofthe time, getting ona white horse and leading a charge does little good. If she

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forced her way into the meeting, no one would he openlysympathetic and a few partners would be overtly hostile.Besides, she liked her job. She had been promoted rapidlyand was widely respected in the firm. She didn't want to belabeled a troublemaker. So Petryni decided not to wasteher hard-earned political capital. She opted for pointedhumor instead.

"You know," she said to the partner she had been work-ing with,"I've never been told I couldn't play ball becauseI didn't have the right equipment!" He appreciated hereffort to smooth over the rupture and later told the se-nior partner what happened. The senior partner soughtout Petryni and apologized for the firm. He acknowl-edged there were sexists in the firm but said they were anaging minority. He asked Petryni for her patience andsupport.

How well did Petryni handle this situation? Her tac-tics didn't fit the standard model of heroic leadership.She didn't tell the first partner that he was doing some-thing obnoxious, insulting, and perhaps illegal. She didn'tgo to the meeting, even though she belonged there. Many

people would argue that she surrendered her interests.But Petryni made a prudent investment. Her restrainedapproach enabled her to make her case to the partner shehad worked with and the senior partner without offend-ing either. Of course, her efforts didn't change the firm'sculture, but she was able to get management to acknowl-edge that there was a problem. Most important, Petryniadded untold riches to her political capital for the occa-sions when she really wants to fight.

Bend the rules, don't break them. Most of us don'tassociate bending the rules with moral leadership. Butfollowing the rules can be a moral cop-out. If a friendasks if you like her new shoes, and you think they lookridiculous, you don't tell the truth. And when the Ge-stapo demanded to know who was hiding Jews, somepeople lied. Between the trivial and the tragic are manyeveryday situations in which responsible people workhard to find ways to maneuver within the boundariesset by the rules. Instead of acting like moral bookkeep-ers, they bend the rules and own up to their deeperresponsibilities.


The quiet moral leaders in my study typically work in themiddle oforganizations where they look for modest but effec-tive solutions to the problems they face. They don't aspire toperfection. In fact, their thinking is distinguished by two char-acteristics that would almost certainly disqualify them forsainthood:Their motivations are decidedly mixed, and theirworldviews are unabashedly realistic. Let's take a closer lookat each of these traits.

M I X E D M O T I V E S . According to the heroic model ofmoral leadership, true leaders make great sacrifices for thebenefit of others. In truth, however, very few people wouldsacrifice their lives for a cause (which is why we revere thehandfuiof people who do and why we call them saints andheroes). Most people, most ofthe time, act out of mixedand complex motives. They want to help others, but they alsocare about themselves. They have lives, interests, and commit-ments that they are unwilling to risk. Because they need to putfood on the table, crusades and martyrdom are not options.

Consider John Ayer,an experienced sales rep at a majorpharmaceutical company that had been selling physicians avery popular drug for treating depression. Although federallaws forbade it, the company started discreetly promoting thedrug to doctors whose patients wanted to lose weight or stopsmoking. Ayer didn't want to limit his pay or promotion pros-pects, but he didn't want to break the law or contribute to pa-tients suffering side effects from unapproved uses. So he triedto walk a fine line: He talked about unapproved uses ofthe

drug only if doctors asked him. But as more and more of hissales came from those uses, he became increasingly troubledand decided to stop answering questions about unapproveduses. He also visited doctors who were prescribing the drug forproblems other than depression and discussed the risks andside effects with them. Then he went a step further: He told hismanager and a few other sales reps what he was doing andwhy, in part to protect himself against future liability.

By any standard of moral purity, Ayer doesn't measure upvery well. His motives for doing the right thing are unmistak-ably self-serving. As he puts i f "My decision was made as muchout of fear as anything else. I was scared off indingoutthatapatient had died because one of my clients had prescribed thedrug at a high dose. I also suspected that my company wouldnot stand behind me if something horrible happened."

Although Ayer's motives were hardly unadulterated, theynonetheless gave him the strength to persevere. Indeed, whenthere is a tough moral challenge, the degree of a person'smotivation can matter more than the purity of the motives.That's because real leaders draw strength from a multitude ofmotives-high and low, conscious and unconscious, altruisticand self-serving. The challenge is not to suppress self-interestor low motives but to harness, channel, and direct them. IfAyer had been motivated by empathy alone, I believe hewould have been far less likely to act

Of course, mixed motives can leave people in Ayer's posi-tion feeling bewildered and frustrated, but that's not all bad.Confusion in complex situations can prompt people to pause,


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Consider Jonathan Balint, a consultant who was work-ing on a large project for a manufacturing company.Bahnt's brother-in-law happened to work for the clientand was trying to decide whether to take an offer fromanother company or stay in his present job. Balint hadlearned that the client was three weeks away fromannouncing a major layoft̂ Balint's brother-in-law wouldlikely lose his job. Should Balint tip him off to the dangerof staying at the company?

Balint didn't want to betraythe confidentiality of his clientor his firm; doing so, he knew,would be wrong, and it couldseverely hurt his career. So hespent several days searchingfor wiggle room. He took therules seriously but didn't treatthem as a paint-by-numbersexercise. Eventually he decidedhe could send signals to hisbrother-in-law without reveal- i

Instead of acting Uke

moral bookkeepers,

quiet leaders bend the

rules and own up to their

deeper responsibilities.

ing everything he knew. For example, he reminded himthat no one is indispensable, that anyone can be laid off;Balint also said he had heard rumors about impendinglayoffs at local manufacturers. His brother-in-law tookthe hint.

Balint's choice perfectly illustrates the way quiet lead-ers work. They know that breaking the rules is wrong -and in some cases illegal. They also want to protect their

reputations, networks, and ca-reer prospects. So they don'tbreak the rules. But when sit-uations are complicated, theytypically search for ways tobend the rules imaginatively.Quiet leaders don't view suchtactics as ideal ways to handleproblems, but sometimes situ-ations give them no choice.Balint, for example, had com-peting obligations to his clientand his family. In complex


look around, reflect, and learn before they plunge into action.Soldiers who clear minefields move slowly and methodically,but their deliberate pace takes nothing away from their valorand adds greatly to their effectiveness. Indeed, nny researchshows that when quiet leaders succeed, it is usually becouse oftheir complicated and ambivalent motives, not despite them.

CLINGING TO REALITY. Ayer's quiet approach toleadership raises important questions. Should he have donemore? Should he have taken the issue to senior manage-ment? Should he have blown the whistle and alerted federalregulators?

I believe the answer is no. All too often, whistle-blowing iscareer suicide. Torpedoing your career might be fine if youend up changing your company-or the world-for the better.But dramatic action seldom leads to such impressive results.Quiet leaders pay close attention to the limits oftheir power.They don't overestimate how much influence they have overother people or how well they can control events in an uncer-tain world. Each quiet leader realizes that, in most situations,he or she is only one piece on a chessboard.

Such realism is often confused with cynicism. But realistsaren't cynics; they merely see things in Technicolor, whereascynics see black and white. Quiet leaders' expansive vision ofreality in all its colors helps them avoid acts of heroic self-immolation.

Consider Ben Waterhouse, the head of marketing at amedium-sized company. His boss asked him to drop a high-

performing ad firm and replace it with a six-month-oldagency. Waterhouse was flabbergasted, especially when hediscovered that the owner ofthe new agency was a goodfriend of his boss. Waterhouse's immediate instinct was todash off a strong memo or call a meeting with his boss'ssuperior. But after he calmed down, Waterhouse recognizedthat he didn't have the clout to override his boss on thisissue. So he developed a pragmatic plan. He gave the new adagency a couple of very challenging assignments, which theyhandled poorly. He documented the failures to his boss, whoopted to stick with the veteran agency.

From the perspectiveof heroism, Waterhouse's story seemsmore like a cop-out than a profile in courage. He didn't takea stand on principle; in fact, he engaged in subterfuge. ButWaterhouse's realism was not a moral handicap-far from i tIt gave him a sense of proportion and a degree of modestyand caution that helped him move wisely across a hazardouslandscape. In the process, he managed to preserve one ofthecompany's most valued relationships. He also kept his com-pany from incurring unnecessary expenses. This made muchmore sense-realistically and ethically-than flaming out ina singleheroic, but futile, act

Taken together,the traits of mixed motives and hard-boiledrealism describe the working assumptions of quiet moralleaders. A moral compass points these individuals in the rightdirection, but the guidelines for quiet leadership help themget to their destinations- in one piece.

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ethical situations such as these, bending the rules is nevereasy and certainly not fun. Indeed, bending the ruies-asopposed to breaking them - is hard work. It requiresimagination, discipline, and restraint, along with fiexibil-ity and entrepreneurship.

Find a compromise. Compromise has a bad reputa-tion in some circles. For some people, compromise is whatpoliticians and lobbyists do in smoke-filled rooms. Manyof us believe that good people - moral people - refuse tocompromise. They tell the truth, the whole truth, andnothing but the truth, and they are always fair. Quietleaders understand this view of moral principles, but theydon't find it particularly useful in most situations. They re-ject the idea that moral principles can be treated likesalami and sacrificed slice by slice, but they try not to seesituations as black-and-white tests of ethical principles.For this reason, crafting responsible, workable compro-mises is not just something that quiet leaders occasionallydo. It defines who they are.

Take Roger Darco, for example. Darco was a hardwork-ing, successful sales rep who learned he wouldn't be ableto sell a longtime customer a new server it needed. Theservers were in limited supply, and his company was sav-ing them for "premier" customers. Roger raised the issuewith his boss and got lots of sympathy-but no assistance.Instead, his boss reminded him ofthe importance of mak-ing quota.

On the face of it, Darco had only two options. He couldrefuse to give his client the server, or he could violatecompany policy and sell the server by faking documents,

as some reps were doing. But somewhere between ex-tremes there is often a compromise solution. Darco foundit by discovering that if his client was willing to be a testsite, it could get the server early. The client agreed and gotthe machine it needed.

Darco may not look like much of a moral hero, hut hedid take on a complicated ethical issue and get it right.He didn't start a revolution-the situation didn't call fora revolution. Yet by finding a workable compromise, Darcouncovered a middle that was "good enough"-responsibleenough and workable enough - to satisfy his customer, hiscompany, and himself.

The Silence Between the WavesThe quiet approach to leadership is easy to misunderstandand mock. It doesn't inspire or thrill. It focuses on smallthings, careful moves, controlled and measured efforts. Itdoesn't provide story lines for uplifting TV shows. In con-trast to heroic leadership, quiet leadership doesn't showus the heights that the human spirit can reach. What,then, do the imperfect, unglamorous, everyday efforts ofquiet leaders amount to? Almost everything. The vast ma-jority of difficult human problems are not solved by thedramatic efforts of people at the top but by the consistentstriving of people working far from the limelight.

This was the view of Albert Schweitzer, a hero if everthere was one. After he won the 1952 Nobel Peace Prizefor working with the poor in central Africa, Schweitzerused the money to build a facility for treating leprosy.

He changed many lives andinspired countless others. Yethe was unromantic about therole of great moral heroes inshaping the world: "Of all thewill toward the ideal in man-kind only a small part can mani-fest itself in public action," hewrote. "All the rest of this forcemust be content with smalland obscure deeds. The sum ofthese, however, is a thousandtimes stronger than the acts ofthose who receive wide publicrecognition. The latter, com-pared to the former, are likethe foam on the waves of adeep ocean." ^

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