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David Zweig on the Invisible Leader

Author David Zweig discusses the true power of modesty in management.

It’s noisy out there. Between talk radio, cable news, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and all the rest of the new and old media, we’re being shouted at, shared with, and pestered without respite. It’s a look, listen, pay-attention-to-me-now world. And one that just keeps getting louder.

But there is an important and influential group of people who manage to avoid the clatter. Quietly, modestly, they do their work diligently, and without a desperate need for personal recognition. They can be found in almost any profession and at every organizational level. They might be anesthesiologists, structural engineers, cinematographers, or business leaders. David Zweig, a lecturer and journalist who has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, lovingly calls these people “Invisibles”—and in his fascinating new book, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion (Portfolio Hardcover, 2014), he lays out a strong case for their importance in making the world go around.

Zweig recently spoke with strategy+business about the nature of the Invisibles, and why, despite their personal modesty, even shyness, they so often make such effective leaders.

S+B: Who are the Invisibles, and what makes them tick?
Invisibles are people who feel ambivalent about gaining widespread recognition for the work they do—and sometimes they’re flat-out averse to it. It’s not that they don’t appreciate praise. They’re quite happy to be recognized for their work by their peers, for instance. But that’s not what drives them.

What motivates Invisibles is the work itself. They take great pride in their work and how they do it. Every Invisible I spoke to is highly meticulous about the work they do, whether it’s tuning pianos or building the tallest skyscrapers in the world. And they all willingly take on—the word I use is savor—the responsibility that invariably comes with their jobs.

They enjoy the process of being immersed in their work, that sense of “flow,” and the feeling of psychological well-being that comes with accomplishing a task really well, or accepting new challenges in their work. That’s the real reward for these people, not grabbing attention for themselves. Psychologists refer to this as being inspired by intrinsic motivators, as opposed to extrinsic motivators like money or attention.

S+B: Given the nature of the Invisibles, you’d think they would shy away from leadership roles. Is that the case?
Not at all. Certainly, true Invisibles don’t actively seek out the extrinsic rewards of leadership—the fame, the pictures on the covers of magazines. And several of the Invisibles I interviewed for the book are just not doing the kind of work that might lead to leadership positions.

But Invisibles can make great leaders. Take Dennis Poon, who has been the lead structural engineer on many of the world’s tallest buildings, including the recently topped-off Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China and the second-tallest building in the world [after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates]. He heads large teams of professionals—structural engineers, wind experts, seismic experts, and so on—whose job is to ensure the structural integrity of towers costing billions of dollars. It’s a huge responsibility, and though the public tends to think only of the architect, Poon revels in the responsibility he takes on. “It’s an honor,” he told me.

This quality is maybe the most important element in Invisibles’ becoming effective leaders. There are plenty of shy people who aren’t looking for outward recognition, and plenty of people who are super-meticulous about their work. But it’s the willingness—even eagerness—to accept responsibility that can turn an Invisible into a real leader.

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