The Hidden Leader

Summary Written by Erin Gordon
"Leadership is not about who you are or where you come from. It’s about what you do"

- The Hidden Leader, page xi

The Big Idea

What’s in a Title?

"…someone’s contribution to the value of a business need not be constrained by that person’s position on the organization chart"- The Hidden Leader, page 187

What really defines these internal leaders as hidden rests with the idea that they are only hidden from management because they may fall outside the traditional definition of a leader. However, if you listen to the employees who work alongside these individuals, they can easily identify these hidden leaders as smart, crucial to the business and effective members of a team. These hidden leaders are often frontline employees, who lack a formal leadership title, but they are also the ones everyone goes to solve tough problems, provide the realistic perspective or orient a new employee to the cultural ways of the organization. Inherent in displaying these competencies is accountability. Hidden leaders view themselves as having the authority and even the responsibility to make decisions, follow actions through to completion and reach goals. As business leaders, it is important that we look for those without a title, who work more closely with our customers than we do, and support them in stretching the boundaries of our processes, guidelines and internal structures to make decisions. Decisions that surpass the expectations of our customers and propel our businesses forward.

Insight #1

Would you like fries with that?

"As Peter Drucker so eloquently said, ‘The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer’"- The Hidden Leader, page 152

This book introduced me to a new concept: “customer purposed”. It is a not-so-subtle difference, but customer purposed is definitely not customer service although the two concepts may have some traits in common. Customer purposed is the epitome of alignment in business. Essentially it is the action of proactively envisioning how a task affects the value provided to the customer displayed across five characteristics:

  • Enthusiasm for Work
  • Balanced skill/Communications proficiency
  • A sense of urgency
  • An owner’s mindset
  • Being a champion of change

Wow! Any one of the five characteristics above are easily actionable and I would argue also contagious for those who have the privilege of working alongside these individuals. When I see someone who is working in this manner, I find myself saying….I want that! Finding value and meaning in the work you do is a true driver of engagement. Hidden leaders have a deep understanding of the value promise of an organization and take the steps required (within the organizational guidelines) to ensure each customer has that experience. What a fabulous connection to employee engagement and the opportunity to take a second look at those front line employees that may be a huge talent pool of hidden leaders.

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Insight #2

On Your Mark. Get Set. Go!

"Doing something – anything – achieves results faster than trying to eliminate ambiguity with facts, research or knowledge"- The Hidden Leader, page 59

I once worked with a leader who told me that the one definite, incorrect action in a situation is the act of not making a decision. Although the decisions are not always 100% right, it is always better to make a decision than to forego making a decision and get lost in the world of grey. Action breeds more action whereas standing still gives someone else the opportunity to step over and make that decision. This insight builds upon one of the five characteristics mentioned under the previous insight – an owner’s mindset. Even small decisions are critical to the ongoing success of business. Like the authors, I agree that good decision making and integrity and honesty go hand in hand. Hidden leaders view their decisions in light of the impact they will have on others much like they view their actions in light of the impact on the customer experience. It is also important to remember that because hidden leaders display a high level of integrity, they are able to make decisions that build trust instead of eroding it. Even if the wrong decision is made, as long as it is made with good intentions and a balanced approach, a hidden leader will be able to bridge the gap.

When I first picked up this book I thought it would provide me tips, tools and resources to become a better leader. Even though I have the traditional title, I recognize there is always room to improve. When I finally put this book down, I felt a greater responsibility to go looking for those in my organization that are in a better position than I am to advance my organization one customer interaction at a time. In one way or another, almost anyone within an organization has the opportunity to become a hidden leader. And….if this is the case, what’s stopping them? Adopting a very provocative position, do you think it is possible to create a very successful organization that has a minimum amount of hierarchy, a decent set of guiding principles and one heck of a large cadre of hidden leaders who are passionate about what they do and are able to align their actions to driving their business forward faster and better than their competitors? As an HR leader, perhaps my role is to hire hidden leaders and then step out of the way and let them do great work!

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Laurie Sain

Laurie Sain is a professional writer and consultant, whose clients span virtually every major industry and include Fortune 1000 companies such as Apple, IBM, Union Pacific, Weyerhauser, and Charles Schwab Corporation.

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