Quiet Leadership

01 Feb 2020

In a gentle way, you can shake the world
Mahatma Gandhi

Fifty years ago, as he became the first person to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong uttered the words that would go down in history: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong had a quiet disposition. According to his biographer, James R Hansen, “There was nothing in Neil’s personality that really tried to find the limelight. After Apollo 11 he didn’t like the celebrity that went with it.”

It is a little-known fact that Armstrong was not supposed to be the one to take those historic steps. Tradition dictated that, as commander of the mission, he should have been the last to leave the spacecraft. But the US government felt that Armstrong, with his quiet humility, would be a better representative of America than the extroverted and outspoken Buzz Aldrin. And so it proved: Armstrong fulfilled the role of humble, eloquent hero perfectly.

This is an example of quiet leadership qualities being prized above extroverted tendencies. But, unfortunately, quiet temperaments are often seen as ill-suited to leadership. The prevailing view is that leaders must embody the alpha personality – they must be the bold individuals who thrive centre stage. Job adverts for leadership positions seem to further lionise the extrovert: “dynamic”, “motivational” and “enthusiastic” are among the most common descriptors.

This chapter will seek to demonstrate the opposite. It will highlight the downsides of “charismatic” leadership, and show how introverts can make extremely successful leaders.

Leadership traps

If we were a fly on the wall in any staffroom in the land, what criticisms would we hear of school leaders? It doesn’t take a genius to guess what might be the most common complaints:

• Lack of attention to detail.
• Arrogance.
• Poor interpersonal skills.
• Lack of effort.
• Stressed and hurried.

And if we were to eavesdrop on staff praising effective leaders, what qualities might they refer to?

• Attention to detail.
• Humility.
• Empathy and listening skills.
• Diligence.
• Calm and measured.

My rather laboured point is that good leadership is not exclusive to extroverts – the innate qualities of introverts can make them wonderful leaders. Claire Stoneman (@stoneman_claire), a deputy headteacher from Birmingham, has written on her blog about the pressure to perform as an extrovert. In one post, she explores her childhood shyness (“I was also shy because I was teased for being clever, so I learnt to shut up in class and not to put my hand up to answer questions”) and discusses how she now brings her capacity to listen to her role as a senior leader:

“This means that sometimes I do much more listening than talking. Conversely, I also talk a lot sometimes. This isn’t my default position, but this was often seen as what A Good Leader Should Do in the ten years I’ve been a senior leader. Have all the answers. Lead from the front. Do all the talking. Be charismatic. I struggled with this when I first became a senior leader, especially as when I first started I couldn’t even get the lunch queue sorted.

I thought that as a new assistant headteacher I should be able to do everything with verve and vigour and resolve. That I should stride the corridors and make decisions in a split second, because that’s what good, extrovert, charismatic leaders do, right?

I hadn’t even considered that there were different ways of doing things, or that different situations called for different knowledge and perhaps a different approach. Or indeed, that I needed to know stuff very well and practise stuff, and that this was really, really important. This was the X Factor era even in school leadership: if you wanted a school leadership role hard enough then – why! – of course you must have it. It was the epoch of the cult of the individual.

There were some tub-thumping, very vocal school leaders, tiresomely bounding into assembly halls up and down the land. This was when those school values began rolling through laminators and magically appearing on walls overnight: dreaming and believing is all very well, but it’s not going to get you far without knowing something, or even simply being aware that you don’t know what you don’t know.”

So, let’s move away from the extrovert ideal and unpick why quieter qualities are so powerful in school leadership.

Quiet success

Before training to be a teacher, I spent a year working as a cover supervisor in Whitley Bay High School, a superb school in the North East of England. I was the school’s on-site supply teacher, covering lessons when teachers were absent. You can imagine how successful my maths cover lessons were. Luckily, student- led learning was very much in vogue – a trend I ruthlessly exploited!

The role had its challenges, but it taught me a huge amount about schools. It was also an introvert’s dream: I could watch, listen and learn from those around me, without the stress and responsibility that are the hallmarks of a training year. And, of course, my watching and listening also applied to the school’s leadership team. One of the challenges of leadership is the scrutiny the position attracts, from staff and from students.

The headteacher, Adam Chedburn, was the epitome of a “quiet leader”, and was universally respected and admired by the staff – more so than any headteacher I have worked with since. He led Whitley Bay High School for 21 years and became a national leader for education. On retirement, he was appointed OBE for his services to education. So, what was his secret? I contacted Adam when I was writing this book and spoke to him at length about his career. I was fascinated by the way he thought about leadership – he is as far as you can get from the stereotype of the ego-driven leader.

After highlighting that by nature he was “quite shy and really not very good at small talk”, Adam spoke about the crucial elements of leadership. He said it was necessary to “surround yourself with people who are better than you, and cherish their ability to do things well”. This required courage and an inner confidence, he acknowledged, yet the “inspirational people who fire you up” had sustained him in his headship years. He was keen to point out, however, that “quietness doesn’t mean weakness – there needs to be direction and people need to be clear on what expectations are”. Leadership, he said, required clarity.

As a leader, Adam’s focus was on training and appointing others – on growing outstanding teachers. I was struck by the contrast with much modern school leadership: the “superheads” who are parachuted in and make rapid changes, then vanish before they can see the effect. After I had applied for the job at Adam’s school, I was hugely surprised when he telephoned me and invited me to interview, then spent a significant amount of time talking to me – all for a position as a cover supervisor. When I questioned him on this, Adam said he had been deeply involved in appointing staff at all levels. He said that if you are “serious about opportunity for everyone in your school, you need to have outstanding people at all points”.

He spoke a great deal about the many skills required by teachers, adding “if you want to be humbled, watch teachers teach”. Adam said one of his great pleasures had been watching teachers leave his school and go on to achieve great things in education. The quality of a school, he argued, depended on the investment in relationships.

He also spoke at length about the importance of listening, recognising that headship was a “privileged position” that some heads exploit by wanting to have “the first word and the last word”. In leadership team meetings, he “would be the person that said the least”, but “what I said was always important”.

In our conversation, what resonated most for me was Adam’s desire to talk about everyone but himself. He was thoughtful, gracious and celebratory of others. People – other people – were at the heart of his leadership, rather than a need to control, direct and be the best at everything. Adam invested in relationships and built the values of a team. Such an approach can, and should, allow for longevity and pleasure in that most challenging of positions.

After talking to Adam, I reflected further on the benefits of quiet school leadership:

Humility. Quieter individuals often have an aversion to talking about themselves and their achievements. If anything, this can be to their detriment, as it can result in them gaining less recognition than they deserve. In a leadership position, however, humility can be a hugely enabling force. Humble leaders put others first and value their input more – this helps them to build teams and get the best out of people. These leaders are less focused on self-improvement; instead, they strive to have greater impact in their work.

Empathy and listening. In schools, it often feels as if everyone is too overworked and too busy to listen to others. Quiet leaders make time to listen because they know how important it is to understand the experiences of others. In turn, these leaders are listened to when they speak. Positive relationships between staff are, of course, essential in ensuring motivation and efficacy.

Hard work. Rightly or wrongly, leaders are judged on their output. We have already noted the conscientious natures of quiet individuals, whose single-mindedness can lead to exceptional focus and determination. The words of the MP Iain Duncan Smith resonate here: “Never underestimate the determination of a quiet man.”

Solitude. Arguably, solitude is a significant component of effective leadership. Stepping back and reflecting carefully can lead to deep understanding, a clear vision and decisions that have real impact. As Jennifer B Kahnweiler, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength, has noted, solitude is a powerful tool. “It’s kind of like a battery they recharge,” she said. “And then they can go out into the world and connect really beautifully with people.”

Calm. There is enough emotion and stress in schools without leaders contributing with capricious outbursts. In terms of temperament and tone, it is interesting to consider the differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, the former and current presidents of the US. Despite being an exceptional orator, Obama is very much an introvert. His tenure in the White House mirrored his personality: calm, collected and easeful. David Maraniss, the author of Barack Obama: A Story, has written that the former president has “a writer’s sensibility, where he is both participating and observing himself participating, and views much of the political process as ridiculous or surreal, even as he is deep into it.” Trump, by contrast, is an example of what happens when extreme extroversion goes wrong: very little listening is taking place.

By reading this chapter, I hope that quieter teachers come to believe they have the capacity for successful leadership. If fear is keeping you from seeking more responsibility, remember the words of Nelson Mandela: “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” Schools need more thoughtful, compassionate, quiet leaders who care genuinely about education. Too often, the cult of the individual has served to create schools led by fear, rather than trust.

I also hope for greater awareness of what quieter members of staff may be able to offer in leadership positions – these individuals could have a profound impact on their schools. Rather than discounting their potential, we need to support them to play a role that harnesses their talents.

In Part III of this book, we will step back into the classroom. We will turn our attention to the quiet and introspective skills that are absolutely essential if students – and their teachers – are to flourish.

A quiet reflection

Christopher Barnes (@MrBarnesTweets) has taught for almost 20 years in international and independent schools. For the past seven years he has been deputy head and head of prep at a non-selective 0-11 day school in Staffordshire. He was previously deputy head in the primary school of the British International School, Moscow.

Leadership found me more quickly than I could have anticipated. Half of my teaching career has taken place overseas, and in Russia, where I worked, promotions often happen quickly. At the end of my sixth year there, I was called to the general director’s office to be told that I would be moving to one of the other parts of our (multi-site) school from September, as deputy head. That was all. No interview, handover or discussion. I felt very underprepared, only having been appointed as KS2 lead in the previous academic year.

Ten years later, and now in my second deputy headship, I am aware that being a quiet leader gives opportunities for misunderstandings, especially given the higher level of role visibility. Those who don’t know you well can mistake quietness for aloofness, diffidence and a seemingly uncaring approach. Those who do see someone who is genuine, interested and reflective; pursuant of long-term and deep relationships rather than the shallow and quick-fix; an active listener and deeply engaged. They appreciate that a lack of small talk does not mean that you are disinterested but, rather, that you value opportunities to engage on a deeper level about fewer topics.

Interestingly, I found a reference from one of my former teachers that refers to this: “Christopher is a thinker and, as such, is not superficial with people, which may hint at a certain reserve. This is a mature characteristic, which must not be confused with a failure to relate to other people. Because of this reserve, he may be open to misunderstanding but those that know him well appreciate his fine qualities.” Mrs Sadler knew me before I really knew myself; looking back on her words now, I can more fully appreciate them.

It took me a long time to become comfortable with being a quiet person, teacher and leader. In effect, there were two key events that helped me. One was a child whom I taught in Year 6 at my current school. She helped to demonstrate the power of quiet. In lessons, she rarely answered questions, but listened, absorbed, thought deeply and produced phenomenal work – and was also an amazing actor! The second confidence-builder came after reading Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat (specifically the chapter about “The Death of the Hero Leader”), Quiet by Susan Cain and Quiet Impact: How to be a Successful Introvert by Sylvia Loehken. They helped me to see that there is power in being a quiet person, which I had not previously appreciated.

As I enter my 20th year in teaching, I believe that it is crucial that children, parents and colleagues see greater links between quiet, calm and authority; that the cerebral, thoughtful leader is a person who has more impact on them than they realise. It is done in an unassuming way: the “reward” is in seeing that all has gone well, rather than anything overt. These people lead by enabling others to do their jobs well and therefore have greater input into the progress that is made by each child. It is therefore difficult to measure the impact of a quiet leader because what they do isn’t always tangible – timetables, duty rotas, the daily running of the school, calendars, the logistics of special events – and yet their influence can be felt everywhere.


1. Does your leadership style embrace quiet virtues and qualities?
2. Do you take the time in the busy school day to listen to other staff?
3. Do you demonstrate empathy and compassion in your leadership?
4. Is a calm and collected response to stress being modelled in your school?
5. What could you do to develop your potential as a leader?

This is an extract from ‘A Quiet Education: Challenging the extrovert ideal in our schools’, which is available to pre-order here and will be published by John Catt Educational on the 17th of February.

Thank you for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: