In Praise of Quiet Authority

Quiet authority doesn’t shout.

It doesn’t scream notice me, notice me.

Doesn’t need to. It believes in itself.

It’s not always easy to remember and trust this simple wisdom in our notice-me-times. All the dark shadows of a notice-me-world are amplified in the midst of an election. But let’s be really clear: Authority-shouting is a constant 24/7 in our lives.

  • We live in a world of self-proclaimed thought-leaders.
  • A world of fake Amazon bestsellers.
  • Where everyone has a podcast (and mind you, I love a good podcast).
  • Where peeps who have never grown a business want to help you grow your business.
  • Where we are implicitly and explicitly taught to self-promote ourselves to success. Non-stop. Day in, day out. Like, always.

Quiet authority doesn’t do any of that. It doesn’t shout.

You might say yes, I agree, but where I work my colleagues who’re good at self-promoting are the ones who get promoted first. The quiet ones get left behind.

There’s a whole wide world of action between self-promotion and silence.

You and I have many sources of personal authority. Great relationships, for one. The ability to connect well with others. True expertise is probably the most critical one. It is fully ours. This expertise is earned. It is current. At its finest, it is self-evident. And it believes in itself.

Knowing how to effectively summon our expertise in support of the work we do is, however, not always simple or clear-cut. Especially if you don’t wish to be one of the shouters.

I remember a conversation I had with my colleague Dawn Denvir, at the time the Chief of Organizational Learning for UNICEF, while I was writing my first book, “Power Speaking.” They want us to be the expert, Dawn said to me, and they resent us for being the expert.

Somewhere between these two poles is where quiet authority resides. Here are 4 mental traps that can so easily come into play as we consider how to harness our knowledge and expertise. Know these traps. Navigate them well.

1. Are you a Knowledge Minimizer?

You don’t wish to dominate situations with your knowledge. You don’t want others to feel inadequate because they know less. You worry that folks will be intimidated by all that you know. You have been told that sometimes you become too geeky, too granular, simply too much. So you withhold information in order to be liked and fit in with the team.

Hint: By all means consider context and how much of your expertise a particular audience needs to know. Edit as situationally warranted. But if your secret playbook is to be liked by others, you have already abdicated true authority. Quiet or otherwise.

2. Are you a Knowledge Hoarder?

You fear that the more you tell, the more you give your power away. If you tell them everything, you have no power left at all. You get an odd sense of satisfaction from not giving away all that you know to colleagues who don’t wholly appreciate the depth of your expertise. Those heathens. Those nincompoops. So you withhold, and your knowledge remains your tightly guarded secret.

Hint: The knowledge you withhold is of no service to anyone. Including you.

3. Are you a Knowledge Competitor?

When others share their expertise, you feel a compelling need to share yours. The urge to match their expertise just seems to take over. You don’t mean to compete with their expertise – but you know that you ARE better informed, more thoroughly educated, and way more experienced than anyone else in the room. And you fear that if you don’t compete, you become irrelevant.

Hint: A dose of knowledge competition with other experts can be very helpful to your enterprise. When it is fueled by deep inner fears and insecurities, it is not.

4. Are you a Knowledge Inflater?

You sometimes find yourself in situations where you feel like you should know more than you do. Admitting that you don’t know something seems utterly unbearable. If you say nothing, you will be found out – of that you are certain. So in case of doubt, you pretend that you have more knowledge than you do.

Hint: Knowledge inflation will always be found out. Even when we get away with it once, we have just abdicated our authority. True authority means I own what I know and proudly own what I don’t know. Otherwise I’m merely an impostor.

A little warning.

Avoid arrested development. Expertise-based-authority is re-earned, over and over again. It is a living, evolving, agile force. It is instantly annulled when we bring stale expertise to the table.

I remember a moment many moons ago when I was hired by a Training firm to deliver their Presentation Skills program. To learn the program, I was shadowing Fernando, one of the veteran instructors as he was delivering it. Fernando was great. He delivered content in an affable manner, without over-talking or drawing too much attention to himself. Little ego. Quiet authority. All was well until Fernando offered a story about an incident in a political debate where a politician had miss-spoken. It was a well-intentioned effort to illuminate a teaching point. The story landed with a big dead thud in the room and elicited an uncomfortable silence.

Not because Fernando made a political reference. No, Fernando’s example spoke of a person who had been in the public eye 30 years ago. This person was an irrelevant reference point to his listeners. This mention meant nothing to them. Worse yet, Fernando had likely told this very story for the last 30 years now. What may have been an authoritative reference then was an outdated reference now. Sadly, arrested development. Authority instantly squandered and diminished.

QUIET authority is, in so many ways, more fragile than NOTICE ME. It does not equal SILENT authority. Silence serves no one. Emphasis on the word serve. The moment we switch from notice me to how can I best be in service of the opportunity we wish to explore together, we’re already a little closer to quiet authority.

Claim that sweet spot between notice me and silence. Please make sure your knowledge is current. This knowledge is the anchor of your quiet authority.

Do quiet well.

Related: 3 Examples of Verbal Violence You Must Avoid