It is widely accepted that effective leadership is critical to an organization’s success. While the qualities and behaviors of successful leadership continue to be debated, there seems to be common acceptance in the psychological literature (and within leadership competency models) that the best leaders are bold, assertive, charismatic, risk-taking and decisive. Steve Jobs or Richard Branson may come to mind. But what if effective leadership also includes other traits that are much less overt or easily recognizable?
Consider the two examples below – one where a high-performing team was almost eliminated from the organization and one in which less dominant leadership traits, such as dialing back risk-taking tendencies and analyzing alternatives, balanced a more aggressive style.
An executive team at a large multi-billion dollar manufacturing company was considering cost reductions and decided to eliminate redundant or irrelevant teams. One team that was considered for elimination was the quality assurance team. This team was a corporate shared service that provided expertise across several business units. The primary reason the team was being considered for elimination was that many executive team members were unaware of the activities and influence it had on the success of the business and assumed its irrelevancy.
Nonetheless, this conclusion was erroneous. In reality, the team was made up of several highly qualified and experienced professionals who worked quietly and collaboratively with important stakeholders within the broader organization. They were collectively humble, spent more time working than networking, and believed that their value was demonstrated by the safety and quality of the products they oversaw. They saw no need to actively promote their accomplishments, since the quality and safety record spoke for itself. They were mistaken, since the executive team viewed them as irrelevant and an unnecessary expense. Fortunately, their leader was informed of the potential elimination and was able to empirically demonstrate the team’s worth and keep this talented group of professionals together.
The lesson here is that quiet leaders can have power and influence but only when they are recognized by people who understand that team effectiveness and leadership have many facets. Consider this next example, which further illuminates this lesson:
A charismatic, energetic and highly successful president of a large midwestern company demonstrated what we often think of as traits of effective leadership. He was very intelligent, opinionated, direct and confrontational, and he consistently delivered on his commitments. He was keenly focused on results and backed up his promises. Despite his dominant style of leadership, he valued all styles of leadership, if they also were productive and led to results.
This leader had a small executive team. One leader was similar in style, but the other two possessed a quiet demeanor, analytical rigor, patience, thoughtfulness and discipline. When the president said, “Go,” they often said, “Wait.” When the president was quickly decisive, these two would push him to think things through. The president sought their counsel, because he was aware of his own impulsiveness and risk-taking behaviors and the downside these traits can have on business success. He relied on these leaders to balance his tendencies so that in the end, the business continued to be successful.
Organizations spend thousands, sometimes millions, on leadership development. This effort and focus may identify many in the next generation of leaders, but what it may not do is identify the leaders who are less recognizable – that is, those who focus their attention on fighting for the troops and team morale instead of aggressively pushing for short-term performance and politicking to be noticed by superiors.
We also need to be clear in defining leadership. Is being a leader only related to having a title and holding a certain level within a hierarchy, or is leadership inherent in any level of an organization? We would argue the latter and that organizations need to pay particular attention to the lesser-known leaders, those without the titles but with the potential to build and maintain an engaged, high-performing team to beat the competition.
What can you do to find hidden talent?
Look for people who get things done. Are they able to do so by the sheer authority of their position, or do they partner, collaborate and work with colleagues to consistently meet objectives?
Look for those who act, not just talk. Some people are very good at broadcasting and exaggerating their accomplishments. Therefore, it’s important to dig deeper and find out what they’ve really accomplished. Look for those doing the work, who have their heads down and are focused instead of those who are networking and bragging about their achievements.
Whom do people trust? Whom do people turn to for advice and counsel? Which individuals are able to encourage others to sit up and listen when they talk in meetings? Through these trusted relationships, these individuals create a following and can obtain results through the collaboration and commitment from others.
Who are the ones asking thoughtful and insightful yet infrequent questions? Often, while the colorful hard-charger is assuming authority, quiet individuals are thinking through complex problems, looking for alternatives or considering how best to execute new ideas. Additionally, those doing the work often have the best solutions for business problems. Being in the mix, they can see a problem from all angles.
Will any one of these particular traits ensure that a leader will be highly successful? That depends on many factors, including environment, culture, industry and strategy. The point is to look beyond the obvious, beyond the most charismatic or visible leader, and look for the hidden gems within your organization.