Recently, I had lunch with a business acquaintance who is the epitome of a hidden leader. Over a 20-year time frame and with a grade 12 education, she rose from the shop floor to being a corporate president. When I first met her, I was teaching facilitation skills to a group of front-line employees. I took note of her ability to learn quickly, her enthusiasm, the respect others showed toward her, and her eagerness to adapt to change.
I recognized a desire to contribute to the employer’s new methodologies and the strong focus on customer service.
She is the best example of a hidden gem within an organization.
As described in The Hidden Leader, conventional wisdom has always directed us to think that leadership is found only at the top, that it is limited to only a few people and it is some sort of birthright.
It’s my experience that leaders are found at all levels of the organization. They only need to be discovered, respected for their talent no matter their education level or job description and then nurtured and developed into leaders who take action to achieve organizational success.
What does a hidden leader look like?
They have gained the respect of colleagues, people frequently go to them for guidance, and they communicate effectively with all levels of the organization. They are especially good at translating new initiatives to their colleagues, galvanizing support and energizing their co-workers. The challenge, however, is because informal leaders don’t hold a titled position, their influence is overlooked and sometimes even resented. Many times I’ve seen formal leaders threatened by informal leaders. Instead of taking advantage of these skills and talents, they drive their informal leaders out of the organization only to see them thrive somewhere else.
In today’s world, where baby boomers are leaving the workplace in droves, hidden leaders are very important. They are the individuals deep in your organization who understand your vision and purpose and can be a source for your internal candidate pipeline. They will help to ensure your competitive advantage and save you thousands of dollars for new employee orientation and training.
The Hidden Leader authors Scott Edinger and Laurie Sain identified four behaviours that informal leader’s exhibit. These include demonstrating integrity, leading through relationships, focusing on results and remaining focused on customer needs.
Demonstrating integrity is described as being able to take a stand, consistently act on a strong personal definition of what is right and what is wrong and to position decisions that are focused on the needs and welfare of all concerned. Using this skill, informal leaders are able to raise issues of concern in such a way that others will understand, appreciate and accept.
Informal leaders have the ability to show interest in and influence others, to encourage and inspire them just through how they interact. They are good at helping individuals cope with various challenges both personal and professional and good at coaching individuals to do their best.
No matter what challenges face an organization, the end game must be results. This means employees must align their actions with the overall goal. This means understanding roles and responsibilities, following process and procedure accurately and getting the job done to meet customer expectations. Hidden leaders are always the one to take personal initiative, they have the courage to act and can overcome difficult situations by tapping into their relationship network.
Lastly, a big difference that I see in informal leaders versus others is what Edinger and Sain call customer "purposed." This is different than customer service in that employees are acutely aware of how their job task affects the customer. In other words, the informal leader sees the big picture of the organization’s value promise to the customer and consistently acts in support of the overall goal. In addition, they are always thinking about how to improve processes to make the customer experience better.
As can be expected, not every informal leader will exhibit all of the four skills described above and so the key here is to identify each informal leader and determine the depth of expertise in each of these areas. While there are many so-called psychometric assessments that can be applied to identify these skill sets, developing your power of observation works very well as a basic step.
While I suggest making your own skills/competency map and checklist for the leadership skills you are seeking, The Hidden Leader has valuable suggestions as to how to assess and evaluate the four competencies.
I believe hidden leaders have a greater ability to contribute to the success of an organization and need to be developed, coached and provided opportunities for growth and success. If this is not provided, I guarantee your informal leaders will leave for greener pastures. So, what developmental steps will help to increase the competitive advantage that informal leaders provide to an organization?
During the past number of years, I have seen so much developmental success arising from a program called Results Centred Leadership. This is a six-month leadership-development program that not only teaches concepts but creates real-world experience through facilitation and sharing.
Organizations that apply this program see individual change and a change in work culture to one of coaching, teamwork, high morale and high productivity.
This type of program accompanied by in-house assignments and coaching by management brings about phenomenal results and keeps employees focused on meeting customers’ needs.
At the same time, finding, developing and supporting hidden leaders will not happen unless a supervisor thrives on developing others, is open to challenge and change, has a high sense of personal self-esteem and is not threatened by those who may have even stronger skills.
Organizations need to find a way to fill their leadership pipeline. Looking inward and developing those hidden leaders simply makes sense.