So often we tend to think of the “leader” as the one who is visibly out front, talking the loudest, and often tooting their own horn in the process. Whether it’s proclaiming their personal “brand” or making sure to appear first in the credit reel, we are tempted to equate visibility with leadership and success.
But sometimes the most effective leaders follow a different course. In what may be the highest form of the leadership art, they choose to be quiet professionals. As these three short stories reveal, it is not an easy path to follow, but being the best at something never is. Do you have what it takes to be a quiet professional?
The Limping Lady
Who’s afraid of Virginia Hall?
The Nazis were. By the end of World War II, she was considered one of the most dangerous spies working for the Allied side.*
Born into a wealthy family from Baltimore, she attended top level schools in the eastern U.S., then worked in American consulates in Europe. She was in Paris when it fell to the Nazis in 1940. During her escape to England, Hall had a chance encounter with a British operative, who recruited her as an Allied spy.
Over the course of the war she was re-inserted into Nazi-occupied France, where she ultimately operated a network of thousands in the French Resistance. During her 15 months behind enemy lines, she provided critical intelligence to Britain, conducted numerous acts of sabotage, engineered a daring jail break that freed a dozen agents, and helped downed Allied pilots escape capture.
She was so effective that the Gestapo flooded her area of Vichy France with 500 agents in an attempt to catch her and destroy her network. She narrowly avoided capture several times, but when the Nazis finally got too close, she made her escape.
With a single guide to help her, she walked across the Pyrenees mountains from France to Spain in the dead of winter. Covering more than 50 miles in two days over a 7,500 foot pass, her trek would have been a difficult feat for anyone. It was all the more remarkable for her, since she did it while wearing a wooden leg; she had lost her real one in a hunting accident years earlier.
At the end of the war, President Truman wanted to conduct a public ceremony and award her the Distinguished Service Cross for her bravery and achievements. But Hall refused – she considered herself still “operational” and feared that her effectiveness would be jeopardized if her name became public. Instead, she accepted a private ceremony with only her mother in attendance. She was the only civilian woman to receive such a high honor during the war.
Later she worked for the CIA, retired in 1966, and passed away in 1982 at the age of 76. Even then, she had never spoken publicly about her experiences. Many close family members never knew what she really did during World War II.
Her name nearly lost to history, Virginia Hall may be the quintessential “quiet professional” – fully focused on getting the job done, but unconcerned with personal glory.
I met another quiet professional when I went through initial Infantry Officer training in the U.S. Army in the mid-1980s. In our class of about 120, one person gradually caught my attention. Not because he stood out, but because he didn’t. I’ll call him George.
He wasn’t flashy or boastful. He was medium height and build. He blended in, and was a good team player. George was physically fit – not the fastest or strongest, but always near the front end of the group. He never seemed to tire. And he was smart – not first in the class, but he always had thoughtful, practical answers to questions that instructors would pose; when he spoke, we all learned.
He was also experienced – more than we knew, it turned out. When it came to operating in the field, he tended to get his tasks done before most of the rest of us. But instead of sitting back, he would immediately look for someone else to help. He was always sharing the work load and helping his teammates, showing them ways to do things a little better, a little smarter. He was positive and likable, but rarely forceful and never boastful. As a result of his coaching and quiet personal example, his squad and platoon always seemed to perform better than the others.
About midway through the course, he hosted a party at his apartment for members of our class. During a brief tour of his place we poked our heads into his bedroom. The closet door was open. Up on the top shelf, leaning on its side against the wall, amid some clutter, was a small wooden plaque – the kind military units often give to team members when they move on to another assignment.
The plaque was in the shape of a shield, and featured a black stiletto superimposed over an open triangle. It was the symbol of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force. George had been a member of one of the most elite military teams on the planet.
And yet you’d never know it. He didn’t quite deny it, but he never really talked about it, either. He would eventually return to that unit to become one of its leaders. Seeing him in a new light, I began to wonder if his being ‘very good’ at everything, but not quite the ‘best,’ was somehow intentional.
What was clear though, was that whatever group or team he happened to belong to, they seemed to quietly rise to the top.
Making the Grade
Here’s another vignette related to Delta and quiet professionals. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the story is told about a Soldier who desperately wanted to become a member. We’ll call him Jason. Standing over six feet tall, he had a square jaw and broad shoulders. His intelligence and skill complemented his rippling muscles and strong presence. Jason seemed to be the ideal candidate in every way.
Jason was accepted into the incredibly difficult Delta assessment course, where the washout rate is rumored to be over 90%, even among the highly qualified candidates who dare to attempt it. Despite the grueling physical and mental demands of the course, Jason was said to have passed with flying colors.
The few surviving candidates who make it to the end of the course face a board of instructors and operatives, where they learn whether or not they have been accepted into the unit.
Despite all his abilities, Jason was not invited to join.
What reasoning did they give? He drew too much attention to himself. He was skilled, no question, but everything was all about him. Wherever he went, he was a magnet for attention – he welcomed and encouraged it.
That’s not what the ‘best of the best’ was looking for. Someone pursuing personal glory not only did not help make the teams more effective, the egos that came with them were likely to make those teams worse. They saw ego as a liability.
The best military team on the planet was looking for quiet professionals. They politely thanked him, and sent him home.
Arnold the Philosopher
Champion bodybuilder, and later actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger had a handle on this concept of the quiet professional early on. In 1974 when the ground-breaking book “Pumping Iron” came out, he was quoted as saying:
“The better you get, the less you run around showing off as a muscle guy. You know, you wear regular shirts-not always trying to show off what you have. You talk less about it. It’s like you have a little BMW – you want to race the hell out of this car, because you know it’s just going 110. But if you see guys driving a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, they slide around at 60 on the freeway because they know if they press on that accelerator, they are going to go 170. These things are the same in every field.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold didn’t always follow that ideal, but he understood it. The thinking along these lines goes back a lot farther, too. In the 6th century BC, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is reputed to have said:
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. – Lao Tzu Click To Tweet
Competence absolutely matters in the leadership world, and the confidence that can come from that competence is essential for a leader to function effectively.
But the highest form of the art comes when the leader can control that confidence. He keeps it from mutating into an ego that seeks the limelight and casts shadows on the rest of the team. He remains humble, and uses his abilities to focus that light and energy on his team. Then he lets their results speak for themselves.
Quiet Professionals – The Takeaway
There are certainly times when a leader needs to step forward and be heard, but in my experience, the best leaders don’t blow their own horns. If anything, they do the opposite.
The focus of the quiet professional is on getting the job done, and helping teammates get better. As legendary college basketball coach John Wooden once said:
The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team. - John Wooden Click To Tweet
The irony of the quiet professional is this: when we can let go of the idea that we need to get the credit or be the star, and instead help our teammates merit those things – that is when we will deserve them most.
* Credit to The History Guy on YouTube where I recently discovered his account of Virginia Hall. Check out his channel for lots of great stories that were nearly lost to history, but “deserve to be remembered.”