How to Find the Hidden Leaders in Your Business

Jun 26, 2015
9 Min Read

When growing your business, don’t dismiss the shy employee in IT or that quiet worker in shipping as unfit for leadership positions. It could just be that the best leaders in your organization are the hidden gems your organization needs to see the best bottom-line results.

In the workplace, it’s those who are outgoing, ambitious, dependable and intelligent who rise through the ranks and assume leadership positions.

But are we missing something? Could it be that organizations are overlooking the truly exceptional leadership talent in their ranks that are critical to scaling a business?

Scott Edinger thinks so. As the co-author of “The Hidden Leader” with Laurie Sain, Edinger contends that too often the outstanding employees who truly impact the bottom line aren’t groomed for the C-suite because they may not be the most vocal or friendly person on a team or in a department.

So, they stay hidden – and organizations miss a golden opportunity to thrive under their leadership, he says.

Still, there are still plenty of opportunities, he says, for organizations to spot these hidden gems. For example, a hidden leader is often someone who shows up for meetings without canceling at the last minute or meets difficult deadlines instead of making excuses. In addition, they may not be the most outgoing.

“I think we have to debunk a lot of myths that just because someone is shy or introverted, that means they won’t be a good leader,” he says. “There are many other important qualities that should be considered.”

Edinger says organizations can not only learn how to better spot these hidden leadership gems, but also work to “unleash” their potential. He suggests:

  • Looking for integrity. “This is much more than just looking for someone who doesn’t lie or cheat,” he says. “We all believe we have high integrity, and we’ll never say we can’t be counted on.” That means organizations need to dig deeper to find the employee who shows integrity every day by keeping commitments, speaking honestly when asked for feedback and being responsive in a timely way. It’s often the worker who “shows up” in a lot of smaller interactions, willing to show courage by offering an opinion that may not be popular or consistently delivering even in difficult situations, he says.

Because of this person’s integrity, “team members know they can depend on this person to get a task done, ask management for resources or tell the team the truth about other options for handling those tasks,” he explains.

To enable integrity: It’s critical that positional leaders show strong support when hidden leaders demonstrate integrity, Edinger explains. It’s key to integrate integrity into the organization’s culture and ensure difficult situations are handled ethically, he says. It’s important that these hidden leaders who show integrity are recognized and supported by other leaders in the company.

  • Recognizing authentic relationships. Hidden leaders use critical interpersonal skills even if they haven’t received such training. They have an interest in others, show self-awareness through their compassion and have empathy for other people. These employees make it a point to give their undivided attention to others – without constantly checking texts or emails. While they may solicit ideas from other people, they may do it via email because they may be more introverted. The key, however, is that they strive for that connection.

To enable such relationships: Edinger explains that not all leaders – whether they are hidden or not – will have 100% competency in essential relationship skills. The key to developing these skills is that organizations must have a clear objective. Why are relationship skills important to the business? What is the vision for the ideal future state? What cultural changes do leaders want to implement? Then, organizations must align their systems and measure results so that relationship skills are recognized and rewarded.

  • Focusing on achieving results instead of just completing tasks. Edinger explains that while it’s important to find those employees who take initiative and maintain a wide perspective, it must be in balance. Too much of one, and it can mean that the person is more of a dreamer or too frenetic, for example. When the employee has a broad perspective and shows initiative, then that leads to a more engaged and productive worker. Even when faced with setbacks, these hidden leaders stay positive, confident and resilient.

To enable them to achieve results: These workers maintain their engagement through independent affirmation. It may be a thank you from a customer, or a more formal recognition from a manager. “Their positive, optimistic outlook infects others with the belief that they are both making a difference and creating progress toward a goal,” he says.

  • Remaining highly customer purposed. This is not the same as customer service – it focuses more on training and empowering employees to take ownership of solving customer problems. Hidden leaders show enthusiasm for the work, balanced skill/communications proficiency, a sense of urgency, an owner’s mindset and are willing to champion change. “Enthusiasm born of a belief in the value to the customers drives hidden leaders to make the customers’ need their purpose,” Edinger says. As a result, colleagues exposed to such enthusiasm also will provide better experiences for customers.

To enable them to focus on customer purpose: All employees must understand the same definition of “customer” and are able to link the company’s value promise to their specific tasks. Various forms of communication must ensure that workers understand the value promise to the customer. Results should be measured, but initiative should also be rewarded.

Edinger stresses that when organizations take the time to identify and develop hidden leaders, they will reap the rewards throughout the organization.

“Just ask yourself what happened to your performance when you worked for bad leaders – and then what happened when you worked for good ones,” he says. “You can’t deny the impact.”

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