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Harnessing the power of your hidden leaders

4 min read


In my latest book. I describe Hidden Leaders as the people in companies that provide a powerful leadership presence despite the fact that their title or position provides them little to no authority. In fact. the topic I’ve received the most feedback on from the book is the importance of leading through relationships.

To the naked eye, it may seem they are simply able to get things done. Look closer, and you’ll see that they are demonstrating strong leadership and influence by dint of relationships they’ve developed. Look closer still, and you’ll see that it isn’t simply niceness or collegiality that has earned them this influence. Too many people seek to establish trusting business relationships centering on likeability. I’m not suggesting that likeability isn’t good, only that it isn’t sufficient. When I observe Hidden Leaders in action, they lead through relationships in the following ways:

  • They possess a technical or professional expertise. That expertise may be based on their function, like engineering, manufacturing or specific to technology. The technical expertise needn’t be technological though as it may come from a discipline like sales, or customer service, or accounting where they’ve established a track record. Whatever the source of that proficiency, it strengthens relationships and supports the connection to others in the business, because with expertise comes trust, which is the foundation of business relationships.
  • They are recognized as having good judgment and rational thinking. Colleagues view them as being able to understand what the business is trying to accomplish, and having the ability to think of pragmatic approaches. That doesn’t mean they are always right, though. But even when they aren’t correct, it is easy to see the reasoning and course of thinking they used. In this way, Hidden Leaders are frequently able to express their rationale for an idea to be implemented, an innovation to consider, or a process to be changed. So even when there is disagreement, the logic is clear.
  • They are good at making emotional connections with others. I’m always careful about using that phrase. In fact I wrote an article for Harvard Business Review on the ways leaders make emotional connections, and I’ll reiterate that I’m not talking about wild displays of emotion or what is pejoratively labeled as “being emotional.” I could replace “emotional” with “human,” I suppose, because the essence of these connections is that logic supports thinking and emotions support action. So using emotions as a means to connect with colleagues is powerful. That could be the energy-creating effect of enthusiasm or passion, the collaborative sense of mutual concern or frustration, and the effect of engagement on shared goals. People rarely act on information or data alone, and when we influence each other, emotion is almost always part of the equation. Hidden Leaders tap into those emotions.

The last thing I’ll note about the relationships cultivated by Hidden Leaders is that they tend to be across the entire organization, spanning divisions, geography, and even hierarchy. That is what enables them to get results, as most of the pain points in businesses occur in the cracks between organizational silos. Hidden Leaders are able to rely on relationships in spite of boundaries in the organization, to fill in those cracks.

Try identifying your Hidden Leaders. Who are they? What do they do differently? Ask yourself what kind of an impact it would have on your business if more employees behaved as they do — even 20% or 30% more? My bet is that you’ll see great power in cultivating more of them. And if you are reading this article, it is likely that is your job.

Scott Edinger has worked with leaders for almost two decades in nearly every industry sector, helping them formulate and implement growth strategies, develop leadership capacity, increase revenue and profit, drive employee engagement, and attract and retain talent. He is the author of “The Hidden Leader” and “The Inspiring Leader,” is a contributing author to The American Society for Training and Development Leadership Handbook, and has written dozens of articles and white papers.

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