HomeBlogsWhy is SF Mayor Ed Lee described as a quiet leader?

Why is SF Mayor Ed Lee described as a quiet leader?

Ed LeeA recent article described San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s journey from a poor working class immigrant Chinese family to becoming the first elected Chinese American mayor in the city of San Francisco.

The article was written for the alumni magazine of Lee’s alma mater. Bowdoin University and republished in Fortune.

It was a largely flattering article  reported by Fortune Magazine writer Andy Serwer, an alum of Bowdoin himself from the class of 1981. Lee is from the class of 1974.

I have two questions about the article.  Why is Lee described twice in the article as quiet?

It happens first in the bold face caption above the photo of Lee at the very top of the article.

Ed Lee graduated from Bowdoin and then Cal Berkeley’s law school to become San Francisco’s first Chinese-American mayor — along the way exhibiting a remarkably QUIET STRENGTH to bring people together.

I added the caps for emphasis.

The second time it happens in a quote from one of Lee’s former classmate from 1970.

“Ed was a very popular but quiet member of the class,” says classmate Jed Lyons.

I added the bold font for emphasis.

I’ve had very little interaction with Lee as mayor of San Francisco other than a brief handshake at an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the murder of Vincent Chin in 2012.

I did know him fairly well on a professional basis in the late 1970’s when I was a reporter for the Chinese American bilingual newspaper East West 

and Lee, as an attorney for the Asian Law Caucus,  was organizing a rent strike with tenants of the Ping Yuen Public Housing complex in Chinatown.

Quiet would not be a word I would have used back then to describe Lee. I saw him both as assertive and pleasant. Yet a classmate still remembers him as being quiet and whoever wrote the caption of the Bowdoin saw a need to describe him as a leader with a “quiet strength.”

The article goes on to insinuate that Lee doesn’t seem to have a lot of charisma, yet is able to capture the audience’s attention.

Why is this important to point out. Is it because Chinese American men and Asian American men aren’t supposed to possess good communication skills. At least, that’s what the stereotype says.

And is it just my imagination, or is the term quiet disproportionately applied to prominent Asian American figures? Again, are others seeing us through the lens of a stereotype?

I don’t see the article as racist. I don’t think the reporter or the editor meant any disrespect or harm.

The bottom line is the word quiet is not an attribute often associated with leaders. By applying it to Asian American leaders, are we making it more difficult for Asian Americans to break the bamboo ceiling and climb the corporate ladder?

It’s a nuance, but I think a very important one.






  1. Re: Why is SF Mayor Ed Lee Described as a quiet leader: I wish quiet were an attribution associated with more leaders. The loudest ones are often just blowhards who aren’t too bright at that. You can be quiet and still lead. And if that is an attribute of Asians, I have no problem with that, especially when paired with the term “strength” or successful.

  2. RE: Why is SF Mayor Ed Lee described as a quiet leader: Chris, have you ever had a chance to take a leadership training class? Every class I have taken says quiet leadership may be considered a strong attribute in Asian culture, in white culture it is considered a sign of weakness. Whether you like it or not , that is how you're being perceived. We need to be aware of this. It's not a matter of selling out your culture or losing your values, it's a matter of recognizing how you might be perceived and adjust accordingly to change those perceptions. It's a tough concept to understand, and you likely won't agree after reading this because it can't be taught in a simple paragraph, but unfortunately its a reality in the white society we live in.


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