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Hidden Leaders

| September 26, 2017

by Jim Bruce

… Hunting, Fishing, Trawling

Every organization has hidden leaders.  They’re everywhere.  They consistently step up to deal with client problems, with intractable issues, with extra effort to meet an unusual request from a key client, etc.  We often don’t think of such individuals as leaders, after all they don’t have a positional title that would signify that they are a leader.  However, they are key to the success of the organization.
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write in the Preface to Steve Edinger and Laurie Sain’s book The Hidden Leader:  Discover and Develop Greatness Within Your Company, “Conventional wisdom portrays leadership as if it were found mostly at the top.  Myth and legend have treated leadership as if it were the private reserve of a very few charismatic men and women.  Nothing is further from the truth. …  Leadership is not a gene.  It’s not a birthright.  Demographics play no role in whether or not someone is going to become an exemplary leader.  It’s not about position or title.  It’s not about power or authority.  …  Leadership is not about who you are or where you come from.  It’s about what you do.”  Leadership is about the actions you take.
In their book, Edinger and Sain tell us, “We believe these hidden leaders are a source of great strategic advantage to your company.  They can be defined, identified, nurtured, and encouraged to help an organization develop a competitive edge.  Some of these leaders will move up the organizational chart, accepting positional power as their personal influence and power develop.  Others will prefer to stay at a certain level in the organization and bring their personal influence to bear on the work they love to do.”
It is important that you identify the hidden leaders in your organization.  They are great workers and, in many instances, drive major accomplishments for their clients.  They are known as the staff to approach for the really tough problems.  They are individuals who are sought out by others for help.  They are highly collaborative.  And, they represent a pool of talented individuals who should be considered for promotion to more formal leadership positions.  However, many of these individuals are content where they are, doing what they like to do and not interested in moving up.
As a leader, where do you start this identification process?  Given that the key strengths of hidden leaders are the actions they take and results they deliver, you start there.  In their book, Edinger and Sain suggest four key identifiers: 
Demonstrate integrity.  Demonstrating integrity consistently, even in difficult situations is the “absolute bottom-line requirement of hidden leadership.”  This makes their actions predictable and therefore they can be trusted to do what they commit to do.  They do the right thing even when it is difficult. 
Lead through relationships.  As we’ve consistently said in the MOR Leadership Programs, “Relationships are the coin of the realm.”  They lead and inspire because of who they are and how they interact with others.  They don’t, actually cannot, depend on their position/title to influence the actions of others.
Focus on results.  The hidden leader maintains a wide perspective and acts with independent initiative.  He or she uses the ends to define the means, which can mean working outside of strict processes to achieve results.  They aim for the end they are supposed to produce and feel responsible and accountable for achieving it.
Remains client purposed.  This is different than client service – it’s an awareness of how an action in a specific job affects the client.   It’s a big-picture focus and having a deep understanding of the value promised.
Hidden leaders are often not easily identified by those higher in the organization’s hierarchy.  Kevin Lane, Alexia Larmaraud, and Emily Yueh, in their essay “Finding Hidden Leaders,” suggest three approaches to finding them in your organization:
Hunting:  When you hunt, you actively seek to identify individuals who manifest these four key identifiers:  demonstrated integrity, strong relationships and collaboration, constant focus on results and the client.  This requires that you build relationships with individuals you think might be hidden leaders and that you observe their work.
Fishing:  If hunting is about seeking out hidden leaders, fishing involves using “bait” to encourage a “hidden leader” to self-identify.  The bait could be recognition for atypical job performance – e.g., innovation or quality control, for problem-solving skills, for collaboration – or for proficiency with other specific skills, etc.   Or, holding breakfasts/lunches/breaks for small groups of staff to give you an opportunity to interact directly with more of your staff.
Trawling:  Here you look to peers and others in the organization to identify colleagues who have particular talents, skills, or accomplishments, and then you interview the individuals they identify to learn more about their potential leadership strengths.   
One thing is clear:  You do have hidden leaders in your organization.  The challenge is to first identify these leaders so that they can be given opportunities to further develop their leadership skills as well as, if they choose, opportunities for more formal leadership roles.
The challenge for you this week, is to begin to regularly “hunt,” “fish,” and “trawl” to identify and further develop those hidden leaders who work with you.  Make it a great week.  .  .     jim 
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Scott Edinger and Laurie Sain, The Hidden Leaders:  Discover and Develop Greatness Within Your CompanyADCOM, 2015.
Kevin Lane, Alexia Larmaraud, and Emily Yueh, Finding Hidden Leaders, McKinsey Quarterly, January 2017 
Michelle M. Smith, Finding (and Keeping) Hidden Leaders in your Company, O. C. Tanner Blog, (undated).
Darren Gibbons, How To Find And Utilize Your Organization’s Hidden Leaders, Huntington Post, February 2016.