Quiet, Humble, Disinterested Leadership

Indeed, when I think of the most important leadership characteristics . . . I think of empathy, humility, consistency, and commitment to a goal larger than oneself. These positive leadership characteristics are manifest in the supportive listener, the service-oriented lifelong learner, the one practicing or working when no one is watching.

Zack Buck

Associate Professor of Law

University of Tennessee College of Law

Leadership is a tricky topic. It is one of those characteristics achieved most successfully by those who don’t seem to be trying.

Don’t get me wrong. Confidence, intentionality, self-awareness, and commitment to hard work are vital characteristics for those who are developing as leaders. Obviously, those who don’t apply themselves or who don’t put effort into the task at hand cannot lead others. This is non-controversial.

But, in my experience, it is not the ones who loudly and brashly set out to be leaders that are most effective. Instead, true leadership is achieved through a selfless commitment to other projects. Far from forcefulness or garishness, those who seem to be the most affecting leaders, those who naturally attract others, seem to have developed and fostered a set of quiet qualities.

Indeed, when I think of the most important leadership characteristics that I’ve learned throughout my professional life, I think of empathy, humility, consistency, and commitment to a goal larger than oneself. These positive leadership characteristics are manifest in the supportive listener, the service-oriented lifelong learner, the one practicing or working when no one is watching. 

Unfortunately, what seems to too often pass for the cheap hallmarks of leadership in our modern society today—publicity, power, resources, prestige—are in many ways the antithesis of these simple values. Those with the loudest megaphone, the biggest platform, and the shiniest lights ostensibly achieve influence and acquire the leadership mantle. 

But true leadership is something else. It is humble, quiet, and—in some ways—disinterested in leadership. That’s the paradox.

Indeed, as a student, lawyer, and now an associate professor at The University of Tennessee College of Law, I have had the opportunity throughout my life to learn from leaders who embody and exemplify the values of leaders. I have been fortunate to learn from incredible teachers and mentors and others—from elementary school teachers to college professors, from law firm partners to judges, and now from law students and law professor colleagues alike. So many of them are leaders—in their families and communities, in their practice areas, and in their academic fields of study.

But one indelible image of leadership—the quiet, servant, humble type of leadership—has always powered me. When I think about the type of leader I aspire to be, I think of one picture.

I attended high school in central Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis, in a town that had just opened a brand-new high school building. In fact, I was part of one of the first classes to graduate from the new building, and the community took great pride in the sparkling auditorium and the massive basketball arena. But by midway through my sophomore year, the novelty of the building had worn off. It had become just normal.

I don’t remember too much about my high school principal up to that point. I do remember that he was a charismatic speaker who encouraged us to pursue our dreams. But his persona, beyond that, is blurry. I, of course, was one of a thousand high school students, and—presumably thankfully—I had not attracted the attention of the front office for any reason by my sophomore year.

Back to the leadership image. 

I was a writer in high school, and I served on the school newspaper staff. The staff would meet early in the school day, and we’d decide on our assignments and stories for the next issue. I was always a news writer, and was interested in keeping the student body informed and focused on whatever the major issues of the day were in a small-town high school. Only important things, of course—like what kind of chips the new snack bar in the cafeteria was selling, or some parking controversy between the seniors and juniors.

This morning, we had finished our news meeting, and I set out into the hallways of the school to see if I could arrange interviews with the main subjects of the story I had been assigned. The journalism room was right near an intersection of two major hallways in the new school. Had this been between classes, the hallways would have been packed with students. But this morning, in the middle of class time, the hallways and major intersections were empty.

Not quite empty, that is.

I quickly came around a corner, journalist’s notebook in hand, and nearly tripped over my high school principal. It took me a minute to recognize him. I was disoriented because I had thought the hallways were deserted, but was confused mainly because he, my high school principal, was in a crawling posture on his knees on the carpeted ground, in the middle of the hallway. In his hands were a pair of office scissors.

I don’t remember what words we exchanged, if any. But it quickly became apparent to me what he was doing. 

A corner piece of the carpet that had covered the well-traveled hallways had begun to pull. Threads—not many, but enough that they were barely noticeable—had begun to pull up from a seam, right in the middle of the major high school intersection. My principal was on his hands and knees—in a suit and tie—with a pair of scissors, cutting the threads that had pulled up from the school’s carpet. He was the only one in the hallway.

I hurried off to the interview for my important news story. But thinking back on it, I know I missed the bigger story that day.

This moment, to me, is the essence of true leadership. It is not when my high school principal gave a commencement speech, or was interviewed on the local news, or waved from the back of a convertible in the homecoming parade. It was this moment. By himself, in the middle of an idle weekday, cutting back pulled threads from the two-year-old carpet in the school he loved. 

There were other specifics that I would reflect on later. 

First, it was detail-oriented. He had to notice the threads, which, to me, suggests that he knew—in detail—every inch of that school, at least on some level.

Second, he did it himself, and it was intentional. He could have thought it was someone else’s job. Indeed, as a high school principal, he surely could have asked someone else to do it, or he could have called the school district maintenance office, but he didn’t. He grabbed scissors from his office, and walked to the other end of the school to take care of it himself.

Finally, he could have turned it into an act that brought him attention. He could have made it into a persona or, today, even a meme—he was the wacky principal who prowled the hallways with scissors looking for loose threads. But he didn’t do that either. He did it quietly, without fanfare, and without any external accolades.

That—humble, selfless, detail-oriented, community-focused—is my image of leadership. 

I suppose I should go check the law school carpets.

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