| July 27, 2017


Podcast #325: Leading Quietly

When we think of being a good leader, we often think we need to be a bold, visionary, risk-taking type like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, or Steve Jobs.

But my guest today argues that most of the day-to-day work that makes the world function is done by individuals who stand outside the limelight and lead with calm confidence. His name is Joseph Badaracco and he’s the author of the book Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing. Today on the show, Joe and I discuss the heroic archetype of leadership, why most leadership development books and courses focus on it, and why heroic leadership can actually get in the way of an organization’s success. He then shares the qualities of a quiet leader and why they’re often more effective than heroic leaders at getting things done in an organization. We end our conversation by exploring the Aristotelian approach to leadership that most quiet leaders utilize and how you can start using those same principles today in your work, community, and family. 

Show Highlights

  • Why do we see leaders as heroic, on-the-front-lines types of people?
  • How can heroic leadership get in the way of progress?
  • How quiet leaders are different from heroic leaders
  • The scenarios in which quiet leadership is the better model, and vice versa
  • The importance of pragmatic realism in leadership, and how to build that skill
  • How to remain realistic without falling into cynicism
  • The myth of the angelic motives of quiet leaders and why it’s okay to be selfish with your career
  • Why honing your managerial — that is, quiet — skills is important
  • Lincoln’s creative political maneuver that displayed quiet leadership
  • Why everyone should know the value of compromise, and how to do it
  • The role of rule-bending and flexibility in leadership
  • The 3 quiet virtues of leadership

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

leading quietly book cover joseph badaracco

Leading Quietly is one of the most practical and nuanced on books on leadership I’ve read. I’ve applied several of the principles in the book to my own life and have seen immediate results.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. I got a cold last week and I lost my voice for an entire day and it’s just coming back, so if I sound a little raspy in the intro, that’s why. The show must go on so we’re going to do this.

When we think of being a good leader, we often think we need to be bold, visionary, risk-tasking type leader like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, or even a Steve Jobs.

But my guest today argues that most of the day-to-day work that makes the world function is done by individuals who stand outside the limelight and lead with clam confidence. His name is Joseph Badaracco and he’s the author of the book Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing. Today on the show, Joe and I discuss the heroic archetype of leadership, why most leadership development books and courses focus on it, and why heroic leadership can actually get in the way of an organization’s success. He then shares the qualities of a quiet leader and why they’re often more effective than heroic leaders at getting things done in an organization. We end our conversation by exploring the Aristotelian approach to leadership that most quiet leaders utilize and how you can start using those same principles today in your work, community, and family.

After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/quietleadership.

Joseph Badaracco, welcome to the show.

Joe Badaracco: Glad to be here.

Brett McKay: Well, you wrote a book that I’ve really enjoyed and the title of it, the reason I read it was the title intrigued me a lot. It’s Leading Quietly. The reason why that intrigued me, because ofttimes when we think of leadership we often think of the great man heroic leader like Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill. Very assertive, very in front of the public eye. Before we get into Leading Quietly, why do I have that conception of leadership as being up front and center.

Joe Badaracco: Sure. I think you probably got it in school because you learned about heroes and you should have studied and learned about heroic heroes because they’ve changed our world. They can inspire us. You may have also gotten the same message about heroic leaders from your parents and I’ve even speculated there’s some evolutionary instinct that we all share to follow the strong person. So some confluence of those forces makes us all think about heroes when we hear the word “leader”.

Brett McKay: How do you think heroic leadership can often get in the way of progress? How can heroic leaders get in the way of the success of the individuals that they’re leading?

Joe Badaracco: They can lead people in the wrong direction. They take a lot of responsibility on their shoulders and if they’re flawed, if they make a mistake, that has serious consequences for the movement or the organization, whatever they’re leading. There’s some heroic leaders that are good at getting started, good at the inspiring talk, but can’t really follow through with execution and detail, which often are absolutely critical and so what they’ve started never really goes anywhere. Heroism isn’t easy and that’s yet another reason why we should learn about and admire the heroic leaders who really have made a big difference for all of us.

Brett McKay: How did you stumble upon, or maybe you didn’t stumble upon this idea, but this idea of the quiet leader? What got you interested in exploring how they approach leadership?

Joe Badaracco: Well, I think that the very beginning was juxtaposing in my own head the historic model that we’ve just been talking about and the fact that in working earlier in my career for Pricewaterhouse, now PricewaterhouseCoopers, observing how Harvard business school and Harvard University worked, writing case studies, teaching executives, I just rarely came across people who fit the heroic model. My question when I started the study was “What other model or approaches are there” and so I gathered, I think ultimately maybe 150 case studies of men and women at different levels or organization, so right down from managing a team up to CEO who faced hard challenges and I sorted them into sort of three categories: people who seem to have done well, people who seem pretty clearly not to have done well, and kind of murky cases.

Then I looked for patterns among the people who did well and it was in the process of doing that that this other model emerged. I don’t know, quiet leaders seemed to be the right name for it and my publisher liked it. So that’s why it found its way onto the title page of the book.

Brett McKay: What sets a quiet lead apart from the more heroic leadership archetype?

Joe Badaracco: Well, fundamentally, leading quietly was a really good title because it captures the essence of what sets these people off. They do lead in the sense that an organization or a little part of the world is different and better because they’ve been there. It’s not just because someone was there. It’s because a particular individual was there doing or not doing certain things. They haven’t accomplished what they’ve accomplished by themselves. They’ve worked with and through other people to make a difference. So I think that’s fundamentally leadership. You can call it leadership management. You can debate that forever, but they’ve made a difference working with and through other people on something important.

However, if you were a fly on the wall or maybe even somebody working in the organization, you might not be aware of everything they were doing. The individual might not even get full credit for what’s done because they’ve been working behind the scenes, patiently, sometimes indirectly, sometimes kind of astutely in a political sense, often working with others rather than putting themselves up in front to get the job done. So there’s lots of these different quiet tactics and that’s kind of what defines the quiet leader and that’s how they get done what they get done.

Brett McKay: Are there situations where quiet leadership is more effective than say the heroic leadership model and vice versa? Are there instances where the heroic leadership model is more effective than the quiet leadership model?

Joe Badaracco: Well, let me start with the second part about the heroic part. It’s a mistake, I think, to believe that heroic leadership is best left for political movements and churches and big organizations in moments of crisis. There are times in organizations, you know, you’re at a meeting and things are moving in a direction that you’re pretty sure is wrong. The boss may be moving things in those directions and it can be hard to put up your hand and say something, take on others, stand out from the group. The nail that sticks out is the one that gets hammered down. It’s hard to take on the boss. Okay? That takes courage and I don’t want to put people who do that on the same level as, you mentioned, Teddy Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, and others. That would be preposterous, but it takes some courage to step forward and do what’s right and you’re running some risks and it may cost you something.

So there’s everyday heroism. You see it with firefighters. You read about it with police officers or even ordinary citizens who rush into dangerous situations and do something. We may all have opportunities on occasion to do something that’s at least a little bit heroic. That said, I think to answer your core question, it’s the vast majority of situations that call for quiet leadership.

There’s some cases that it’s clear what needs to be done either strategically or legally or ethically. It doesn’t take any kind of leadership to do what’s kind of up on a billboard and everybody recognizes we ought to do it, but in tough situations where there’s a lot of uncertainty, where the politics is tricky, there’s often technical complexities that not everybody really understands, then it’s important to move quietly. What I would add is that I think that every five years or 10 years the world moves further in that direction of greater uncertainty and greater technical complexity of all kinds. I think you’ve got to move slowly and patiently and cautiously in those situations. That, roughly speaking, is quiet leadership.

Brett McKay: I like how you talked about in the book that quiet leaders often are working on the little things in the background, but those little things really aren’t little. They’re the things that make everything work.

Joe Badaracco: It’s a cliché, but it’s true that we live in this interdependent world. That’s true of relationships and organizations. It’s true of computer systems. It’s true of biochemical systems. You’ve got to get a lot of little things right, otherwise big things can easily go wrong. Well, the quote I like a lot in the book is from a guy named Bruce Barton who’s largely unknown, but early in the last century he ran for Congress successfully. He wrote a number of very successful religious pamphlets. He spent most of his career building up a big advertising agency and he said that given the uncertainty of life, you just don’t know, he said, whether a tap on the shoulder or a dime on a newsstand, as he put it, might not have really big consequences. So the idea that you’re kind of on holiday until the world gives you some big issue where you can be a hero, I think is not really stepping up. There’s lots of small and medium sized things. They take quiet leadership. They take effort. They take patience. Work on them and try to get them right. That’s one of the messages in the book.

Brett McKay: One of the things you argue in the book is that a quiet leader is like a pragmatic realist. I think oftentimes the heroic leaders often, they’re great for articulating the vision and letting people know about that vision and inspiring people, while the quiet leaders are there looking at, okay, “What could we actually do?” So what can leaders do to hone their perceptions so that they have an accurate picture of what’s actually going on in the situation they’re facing?

Joe Badaracco: I think the fundamental thing is to sort of imagine that they are walking across a kind of minefield and I don’t mean to encourage excessive caution or paranoia, but before they take action, ask themselves, “Who’s likely to support this? Who’s likely to oppose it? Who could we get to support it if we made the right case and persuaded them?” If you look at the people likely to oppose something that’s going on, how much clout do they have? How persistent will they be in their opposition? These are skills that we often associate with politicians and it’s kind of a negative view of politicians as opposed to the ones that we make into heroes or who are genuine heroes, but there’s lots of complications and lots of politics and lots of power stuff that can stand in the way of getting things done. I’d say have a really clear look at that.

The second thing I’d say is even putting all the politics aside, you’ve got to ask yourself, you’ve got to use your imagination in a very practical way and say do you have a plan that’s got a good chance of working? If it doesn’t, what’s the backup?

One of the famous professors in the history of HBS was a man named General Georges Doriot. He was French by birth, he came to this country, during World War II he was very important working for the US managing the immense supply chain that supplied the troops in Asia and in Europe. Then he went on to found the first really important publicly financed venture capital firms. This guy was really important and his advice to managers has been quoted by a lot of his former students. He said if you got a plan of action and it’s an A for strategy and a B for execution and you got another plan that gets a B for strategy and an A for execution, he said always pick the second plan, the one that you can execute.

That’s the second part of this pragmatic realism. Even if you get over the political hurdles, can you really see this through and, as I’ve said, have you got a backup?

Brett McKay: I love that. How does a quiet leader remain realistic without becoming cynical and jaded? Because I know that from my own experience I can fall into that. I’m like, “I’m just being real here,” but then I can see I’m actually being cynical.

Joe Badaracco: Yeah. I think you’ve really gotta look in a mirror and you’ve gotta look at your motives. I think ideally, you find a full set of motives. In other words, you find some self-interested motives like I’d rather succeed than fail, I’d like to get promoted, I’d like to get a bonus, I’d like to have good things being said about me in the network inside the organization. I think people who are acting out of their self-interest are acting out of a pretty important and strong motive and it keeps them motivated when things get tough. But if those are your only motives, then I think you’re at risk for the kind of thing you were worried about, Brett, and you’ve got to say, “Wait a minute. Am I also doing this for some larger cause or larger purpose that’s important to the organization, important to my team, maybe important to some people in the organization?”

A quote I really like is from the ancient Hebrew philosopher and theologian Hillel the Elder who said, and a lot of people listening, I’m sure, have heard this, “If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if I’m not for myself, who will be fore me?” So you’ve got to be for something bigger than yourself, but you gotta take care of yourself as well. It’s that mix that I think is important.

Brett McKay: Speaking of motivations, I thought this was really interesting when you explored the motives of quiet leader because oftentimes I think heroic leaders are put out there as like, they’re just these altruistic individuals who are just striving for the greater good, but you give these case studies of these quiet leaders who, they were thinking about their careers too. They would make tough decisions that could affect their career and they try to navigate a decision that got them to a good result while protecting themselves. Some people would say, “Well, that’s kind of conniving, Machiavellian.” What’s your response to that?

Joe Badaracco: My response to that is that that’s how the world works and that’s human nature. If we just waited around until people with angelic motives that were 99.9% pure acted and did what needed doing, we’d be waiting an awful lot of time, a long time, and not much would ever happen. There’s a kind of biography you read of great leaders, which is kind of a gotcha story. It says they look great, but actually their motives were complicated, and they had issues with their parents, and so forth, and they’re settling scores, and so forth and so on. My view of that is that’s probably true, that human motivation is typically really complicated. I don’t mean this in a harsh or sort of arrogant way, but I just say, open your eyes. Look at what makes people tick. It’s typically a combination of motives, often very deep, often not even fully understood, but that’s what I like about the, I think, that profound observation by Hillel the Elder.

Brett McKay: Yeah. What I loved about these really complex, often like the ethical dilemmas some of these quiet leaders faced is that they just weren’t thinking about the immediate ramifications of their decision. They were thinking like third, fourth level. Like how would this affect things years down the road? When you have that long-term approach, it often makes you do things that in the short terms might seem to people looking in from the outside, well, maybe that’s not ethical. But if you look at it for the long term, you realize that was the best thing that they could do.

Joe Badaracco: Yes. I think that one way of characterizing quiet leaders is that they’re very managerial. There is, of course, the old cliché, which I really dislike, that says leaders do the right thing and managers do things in the right way. It sort of says managers are sort of second-class citizens who do the budget and send out the memos and all the rest, but in a complicated world it really matters to do things the right way in making a decision and then executing the decision.

In fact, I think maybe somebody has written a book I’m just about to describe. I’d love to read one. I’m not planning to write it myself because I don’t have the background, but I think it would be fascinating to see a study of the great leaders and look at what they were doing when they weren’t giving the great speeches and up on the podium and leading the troops and everybody else.

Martin Luther King is famous for his “I have a dream” speech, which he gave at the end of the march on Washington, but he spent two weeks or so before that trying to get six or seven different civil rights groups to agree to have the march on Washington and to agree how it’d be structured and who would give a talk and where and all the rest. He had a managerial hat on for a long period of time just trying to get stuff done. What we know about is the rousing heroic inspirational talk, but that was sort of the icing on the cake.

Brett McKay: Yeah. That brings interesting points. So it is possible to be both a heroic leader and a quiet leader then?

Joe Badaracco: My sense is that almost all of the great leaders have also been quiet leaders, managerial leaders. You know, in many cases these men and women were kind of mobilizing a group, if you think of civil rights leaders, for example, to fight against an establishment. That’s not easy. That takes a lot of management because you don’t have the same resources as the establishment, you don’t have a hierarchy, you don’t have relationships. You gotta get people to work together, people with lots of different backgrounds. You’ve got some people who are really committed to the cause, which is great, but sometimes they’re so committed that they’re a little out of control and can actually undermine the cause. You gotta get all these folks working together and that takes real management, negotiation, political leadership and management talent.

Brett McKay: Another aspect of developing quiet leadership is seeking for good enough. I think another aspect of heroic leadership is leaders do the right thing. Sometimes you do the right thing no matter what even if it means you don’t get anything done because you’re not willing to compromise.

How do you, as a quiet leader, navigate that world where you’re trying to make compromises when people aren’t willing to compromise? They’re not willing to settle for good enough, how do you, as a quiet leader, nudge people in that direction?

Joe Badaracco: Sometimes the instinct that says let’s not settle, it is a sound instinct. What’s behind it sometimes is an intuition that if we’re creative, if we spend a little more time, if we use our imaginations, it’s not just a case of A or B or C. There’s another option out there. It’s going to take some work, take some imagination to flesh it out, but we ought to really invest. I think before you settle for half a loaf, split the difference, whatever cliché you want to use, these are good cliches, because sometimes that’s what you end up doing, you ought to make sure you haven’t left any creative options on the table.

A very famous example that I often use in classes involves Abraham Lincoln in the late 1850’s. He was running for President. The big question in the country was slavery and specifically slavery in the new Northwest Territories that became Indiana and Ohio. If Lincoln came out in favor of slavery in those areas, he’d lose a lot of support in the North. If he opposed it, he’d lose a lot of support in the border states that he needed to get elected. So, what do you do?

A lot of politicians today would just issue some sort of mushy statement. Lincoln said the following. He said he opposed the extension of slavery because that would be bad for what he called free white men who would immigrate to these territories and get 40 acres and build a life for themselves and their families. He said it was unfair to make them compete with plantation farming. It was quite interesting. He avoided taking a stand on the fundamental moral issue, but instead found a creative way to oppose slavery and to build a coalition to support him and to oppose slavery in those areas. You can say, “Well, that wasn’t heroic and that was a little wishy-washy,” but inarguably, if he didn’t come up with this creative approach, his name might not be known today, the country might have split into two or more pieces after the Civil War, no Emancipation Proclamation, and history would be radically different. But there was a creative compromise that this extraordinarily judicious man put together and managed to execute.

Brett McKay: I mean, I love that story, but I think a like a lot of people listening I was like, that sounds great, but how do you convey that? You’re making a compromise in the short term so you can fulfill some long-term goal? I feel like we have this culture now where it’s like if you compromise you are weak, you’re giving in, and there’s no taking an account of what will happen five years from now and 10 years from now, etc.

Joe Badaracco: Well, here’s where I think a managerial approach can be helpful. If you’re going to say to a group “This is the best we can do. We’ve got to sort of compromise. I know you’re disappointed,” you’ve got to be able to make the case that this is the best you can do and that means assembling facts. It can mean assembling data. It can mean showing them that you really burned the midnight oil trying to find alternatives. It can mean you looked at some alternatives and decided they wouldn’t work or they were just too risky. What I mean by being managerial is you’ve got to make the case.

Then there’s a personal element to this as well. Now, you’ve got to be able to make the case convincingly and look people in the eye and say, “I really did the best I could and that’s why we’re going to do this.” That often happens in the case of layoffs, which are very painful for the people laid off. Also, tough in some ways for the people who do the laying off. They’ll typically say it’s the toughest thing they do as managers or executives. Before you look at a group of people and say, “I’m sorry, but we’re taking your jobs away,” you’ve got to be convinced and you’ve got to be convincing that you really did all you could. That’s hard managerial work. That’s not something that comes out of the heroic leader playbook.

Brett McKay: You also discussed in your book, and this can also raise some eyebrows for people listening, is that an element of quiet leadership is rule bending. How can rule bending be done ethically in a way that can move forward a big picture goal of a quiet leader?

Joe Badaracco: First, to be clear, there are some rules called black letter law whose interpretation is unambiguously clear, like around insider trader. I’m not saying for a second that you ought to bend those rules. In fact, I think you even ought to avoid the gray area around those rules because if you’re leading an organization or part of an organization and you’re doing some clever maneuvering in the gray area trying to get right up to the law, but not cross it, maybe you’ll succeed. You may wander across into something that’s illegal and some people in your organization watching you, watching your example, may not be as skilled as you and they may do something that violates the law and you’ve got a big problem. There are some real bright lines you better not cross.

But you know, there’s lots of other sort of laws, regulations, guidelines, that have to be interpreted in particular situations. Often they were written for situations other than the one you happen to be dealing with. And so, there I’d say look for a little flexibility rather than just say, “Gee, the law or the regulation says absolutely this. This is what we’ve got to do.” I think that can actually be a cop out. Now, say, “Well, sorry, we can’t do anything because that’s what the regulation says.” I would look for a little flexibility. I’d certainly talk to knowledgeable people in compliance, in the legal department, experienced senior executives, a mentor if you’ve got, and say, “Look. I think this is just pushing us too hard in the wrong direction.” You want to be able to be public and somewhat transparent about it. If you’ve got a responsible job, you’re not paid to look up things in a rule book. You’re paid to use your judgment.

There can also be conflicting rules, conflicting judgments. That’s where I say look for a little flexibility and just don’t assume it’s black and white. It often isn’t.

Brett McKay: Yeah. As I was reading your book, it seems like this managerial approach that you’re advocating is very Aristotelian. You’re looking for the right answer for the right reason at the right time.

Joe Badaracco: That’s precisely right. You’re doing those things for the particular situation you face. Aristotle can be kind of frustrating because when you say, “Well, what’s the right thing?” And you go to his writings, he’ll say, “Well, the right thing is whatever shows good judgment.” You say, “Okay. Great. What’s good judgment?” “Well, good judgment is sort of putting the virtues into practice. Justice, truth, prudence.” Okay? “How do you find somebody who’s got good judgments living by the virtues?” “Well, they come from a good community.” “What’s a good community?” “Well, that’s where you have a lot of people practicing the virtues.” “How do you know you’ve got a good community?” “Well, you’ve got a lot of people with good judgment.”

And you’re right back at the beginning. It’s circular, but he did not want to define the world in terms of rules and cookie cutters. He said you’ve really got to look at specific cases. Of course, you use your judgment. You may make some mistakes. That’s another reason to be managerial, to try and do things carefully, but you may make some mistakes and that’s also why, I think, good managers have contingency plans.

But that really is out of the Aristotelian pragmatic view of how you do the right thing.

Brett McKay: Speaking of Aristotelian virtue ethics, you argue that there’s three quiet virtues of leadership. What are those virtues?

Joe Badaracco: What I focus on most heavily is the one I call modesty. That sort of says, let me put it this way, one consulting firm years ago had an ashtray or something it gave to people, they put on the desks of people in their offices. A long time ago back when a lot more smoking. It said, “Just remember you’re not a genius.” This idea that the world is a really complicated place and that you might be pretty good at what you do and you might have gotten some promotions because you’re pretty good, but there’s an awful lot out there that you just don’t know. It’s described sometimes as the prayer of a Breton sailor. The prayer is roughly, “Oh Lord, my boat is so small and the sea is so vast.”

It’s this sense of modesty before all the uncertainty out there that I think is almost an instinctive part of what makes quiet leaders tick. And so they move more slowly. They talk with other people. They drill down. They pause and reflect on things for a while.

There’s another saying that I like quite a lot that’s apparently put in front of people who are training to be Navy pilots who are going to land on aircraft cruisers, which is a pretty dangerous and difficult thing to do. The saying, basically, is that there are no old, bold pilots. I think that’s a great saying. These are super courageous people who do these things. I’d say be patient. Be modest before you go plunging ahead.

Brett McKay: I think it’s an important virtue to hit on, especially in our day and age where you don’t want to be modest. You want to promote yourself and live big and go big or go home.

Joe Badaracco: Well, and you know there are these great stories out there. I’m now reading a biography of Elon Musk. I’m about halfway through, but what an amazing guy. If you look at his three companies now, they seem to be doing pretty well as companies and making profound changes or promising profound changes in life for all of us today. Okay? The guy just didn’t know he was supposed to sleep and often didn’t think that what other people thought were barriers in front of them were real barriers and went crashing ahead.

Now, I think another biography could be written about the close calls he had, the luck he had, but you look at somebody like that and that is kind of inspiring and it sort of says, “Get off your rear end and give stuff a shot.” I think that’s a good instinct, but it’s got to be counter-balanced in a complicated uncertain world with other ways of thinking, which I describe as quiet leadership and most of us aren’t Elon Musk to begin with, so I’d recommend a little modesty even if reading his book does get you off your rear end and out trying some stuff.

Brett McKay: Well, Joseph, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Joe Badaracco: Well, I’ve written a number of books that, in some ways, are all variations on this theme. You can find those books, basically, on Amazon. Most of the books I’ve written have led to Harvard Business Review articles as well. I think they’re available from Harvard Business Publishing, I think for $3 or $4 or something like that. So those would be the places I’d have a look.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Joseph Badaracco, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Joe Badaracco: You’re welcome, Brett. I enjoyed it.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Joseph Badaracco. He’s the author of the book Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/quietleadership where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, have got something out of it over the years, please, take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps us out a lot.

As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: September 12, 2017

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