How To Find the Hidden Leaders on Your Team


Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.

Everybody recognizes the importance of leadership in the C-suite, but we don’t always give it the attention it deserves in the trenches—where execution is the name of the game. Nevertheless, there are lots of so-called “hidden leaders” on the front lines, and supervisors and middle managers who know how to find and nurture them can enhance performance in their teams and provide a great boon to their companies.

Who are these hidden leaders? “They are the people who are putting your organization’s strategy into practice, carrying out your quarterly plans, and bringing the value of your organization to life for customers every day,” says Scott Edinger, the founder of Edinger Consulting Group. “They are the employees who make the engine run.”

In Hidden Leader: Discover and Develop Greatness within Your Company (AMACOM, 2015), Edinger, along with co-author Laurie Sain, explains that these often unrecognized and, thus, underutilized employees can set the standards for performance excellence and bring energy to their teams; they serve as trustworthy sounding boards for supervisors and peers alike and are the go-to guys and gals for critical assignments. Edinger generously agreed to answer a few questions to help you harness the power of the hidden leaders on your teams.

Safari: How can supervisors and managers identify hidden leaders?

Edinger: The simplistic answer, which I often hear from CEOs and division leaders, is to look for employees who “act like owners.” This made perfect sense to me until one day, when I suggested that a group of call center employees should act like owners and one of the operators snapped back, “Does that mean I get to drive a nicer car, come in late, and do whatever I feel like?”

He got a good laugh, but it struck me that the vast majority of people don’t have ownership stakes in their companies, and as a result, they have no idea what it means to act like an owner. So I started to talk to executives about what it really means and their answers led me to the four facets that characterize the behaviors of hidden leaders:

  • Focus on results: Hidden leaders are not simply trading time for money. They are focused on outcomes and the achievement of goals.
  • Demonstrate integrity: Hidden leaders can be counted on to do what they say they will do. They follow through on their commitments, speak up when something is not working, and give clear feedback.
  • Lead through relationships: Hidden leaders establish relationships to get work done. They promote teamwork and collaboration within and across organizational silos.
  • Customer purposed: Hidden leaders understand how their companies create value for customers and they are able to get beyond everyday process and tasks to ensure that value gets delivered.

Safari: What if no one on my team clearly demonstrates all four facets? Does that mean that I have no hidden leaders?

Edinger: Not necessarily, although it does mean that you’re going to have to do some coaching and mentoring. Remember, we aren’t looking for people who are perfect in each of these areas—people like that don’t exist. We’re looking for people who are good or really good in terms of the four facets, and then, we’re building on that foundation by helping them cultivate good performance into profound strengths.

Safari: Can we create an organizational environment that stimulates the emergence of hidden leaders?

Edinger: Yes, and the formal leaders in a company should do exactly that. What if you could raise the number of hidden leaders on your 12-member team from one or two to six or seven? Think about the tremendous effect would that have on the performance of the team.

That said, there isn’t a silver bullet – there is no one training program or compensation plan that will make this happen. It’s really the culture of an organization that enables hidden leaders to flourish—and that is the responsibility of formal leaders, particularly senior leaders. We’ve found that cultures that emphasize open communication, shared understanding and alignment vis-à-vis strategy and goals, teamwork and collaboration, organizational learning, customer focus, innovation, and a clearly-defined set of values are ideal for unearthing hidden leaders.


entrepreneurs-library-logoA summary of things you should know about The Hidden Leader according to Scott Edinger:


In this episode Scott Edinger takes a deep dive into his and Laurie Sain’s book, The Hidden Leader, where they reveal a unique way to develop greatness within a company.

In their book Edinger and Sain provide a systematic blueprint of a new style of leadership called Reverser Mentoring where senior leaders are mentored by their employees. The goal of the book is to show you how to recognize true leaders within your company, effectively utilize highly talented employees, and build valuable, long-lasting relationships with any employee.

This book is perfect for entrepreneurs who lead their organizations with a creative mindset and are looking for a way to effectively make the most of under-utilized employees.

The Book’s Unique Quality (3:36)

There are thousands of books on leadership but the majority of them all seem directed at people who are in positions of leadership but there are very little directed at people who are your average citizen.

The Best Way To Engage (4:45)

I designed the book to be read from front to back but if you want to cherry-pick information along the way you can do that too.

The Reader’s Takeaway (13:59)

I want the reader to know that leadership has nothing to do with position or title; it’s what your actions are.

A Deep Dive Into The Book (5:47)

Hidden leaders look for what the outcome is or how success is defined in any given endeavor and then they figure out how they are going to do something. I am not saying they are renegades to the process but they are willing and able to look for the result that we are seeking and understand it. Another thing I see a lot of from hidden leaders is that they lead through relationships. They can’t boss anyone around or tell people what to do so they are really good at leading through relationships and that does not mean they are the popular person. Usually these hidden leaders have some kind of great technical expertise. They secondly understand the organization broadly and know way more than just their function and are able to knit teams together when they need to get things done. Thirdly, they are able to make a connection with people. The last thing that I wanted to share that I think is the heart of everything is the idea that hidden leaders demonstrate integrity.

NOTE: That was just a summary. To get the full deep dive, play the audio clip at 05:47

Notable Quotes From The Book (14:26)

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, and become more you are a leader. “ – John Quincy Adams.

The Credibility/Inspiration Of The Author (0:35)

Companies like AT&T, Lenovo, and Los Angeles Times hire me to work with their senior leaders. I start with senior leaders because as the senior leaders go so goes the organization. I work with them on creating growth strategies and how to create differentiation in their business as well as how to lead effectively.

A few years ago I was talking with a former colleague of mine and he was telling me about a project he was working on called Reverse Mentoring. The notion here was that instead of senior partners mentoring, the associates would mentor the senior partners. And those senior partners learned a great deal not only about technology but also about client services and some new ways to approach that. I thought that was such an interesting idea and then the next day I read an article about reverse innovation. I ended up thinking about it all when the hidden leader concept was born and then I found my publisher.

Other Books Recommended By The Author (15:45)

High Performance Sales Organizations by Darlene Coker and Ed Gaizo

More Information About This Book and The Author

Buy The Hidden Leader by Scott Edinger and Laurie Sain on Amazon today
Visit to learn more about Scott and his exclusive content
Visit to learn more about the book
Follow Scott Edinger on Facebook and Twitter


The Hidden Value in Your Company is the Key to Your Growth

ceo-mag-logoEvery time I’ve worked with a senior team in the strategy formulation process, we’ve succeeded. Of course, I’ve never heard any group of executives say their strategy failed when it was created. It is in the implementation or execution that strategies falter, because most strategies rely on people in the organization taking action in new or different ways. That doesn’t happen by declaration. And it doesn’t happen when people are sent to training programs, though it is popular to pitch this to HR or Talent Management. If you want your strategy to work, it is up to the CEO and senior leaders of the business to drive it and you’ll need the help of what I call Hidden Leaders to be your exemplars and role models.

Hidden Leaders are the individual contributors, front line supervisors, and middle managers that bring your strategy to life everyday. They are the employees who go the extra mile for your customers, the ones who can be counted on to deliver great results, the ones whose opinions are trusted by colleagues; they are your go to people at every level of the business. I wrote the book The Hidden Leader because we don’t often think of leaders occupying these kinds of roles. Leadership has come to mean position or title in most companies, but there is a tremendous amount of leadership in places we don’t typically look that is lying fallow.

So while it is necessary to have good leadership in the senor management ranks, it’s not sufficient to achieve the growth many CEO’s desire. But, you’ll have few Hidden Leaders if the very visible leaders don’t establish the kind of culture that cultivates leadership at all levels. Since culture is really about the mindset or beliefs that guide behaviors, that is your starting point.

  • Can you identify the people who have the greatest influence on how people in your company, division, or office behave?
  • Does your business provide reinforcement for the behaviors you desire, separate from results achieved? (e.g. Rewards for innovative efforts that don’t work out.)
  • Are there consequences for behaviors that are counterproductive, even if the outcome is a win?

I’ve seen very sound strategies fail, and average strategies achieve strong objectives. The difference in the CEO’s was the creation of an environment that allowed them to rely on leaders at all levels to power the implementation.

You Don’t Need a Position or a Title to be a Great Leader LogoJohn Quincy Adams, the sixth President of The United States said it best close to 200 years ago. “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, and become more, you are a leader.” The sentiment expressed in that sentence succinctly describes one of the primary messages in my new book The Hidden Leader, which is that leadership in organizations, is not tied only to positions of authority and titles. Rather, that leadership can exist anywhere in a company, from individual contributors, front-line supervisors, or middle management—places we don’t tend to look for leaders. Yet harnessing the power of those employees may be your best opportunity to create a competitive advantage in an environment where what you offer, (products or services) is becoming less important than how you offer it. The linchpin for that elusive, but unfair advantage over the competition is your Hidden Leaders.

I’ve analyzed and published performance data on tens of thousands of leaders and had the chance to work personally with hundreds more. Through that experience I’ve learned that leaders come in all shapes and sizes. There is no bright-line test or rule for what makes exceptional leadership. No universal standard or unambiguous objective factors. But the common thread in that tapestry of leadership is that leaders believe that what they do matters. They make a difference. And that has nothing to do with titles, positions, or authority.

In my work with companies from the largest in the Fortune 500 to venture backed start-ups, I’ve been fortunate to see many of these Hidden Leaders in action, committed to making a difference, and this is what I’ve observed.

1. They lead through relationships. With no position or title to wield, the Hidden Leaders rely on their relationships to influence action. Relationships that aren’t just niceness or likeability (though it doesn’t hurt), but those that are built on confidence in their capability or expertise. Relationships that develop trust in decision making, and prioritizing what is in the best interest of the customer or the company. These relationships also create some kind of a connection—that is, they interact as people—not just doing tasks and performing jobs. That connection can include excitement and engagement, or frustration and a desire work together to improve something.

2. They demonstrate integrity. The kind of integrity that has the courage to give feedback or express truthful opinions instead of clouding real issues with corporate speak. The integrity of keeping commitments, and being accountable for their actions. Integrity that shows when someone is willing to speak up when something goes against the grain of cultural values or isn’t consistent with stated objectives. Of course, they don’t lie, cheat, or steal, but that is no great feat, and frankly is just meeting expectations. This kind of demonstration of integrity includes a texture of being reliable, dependable, and consistent. They can be counted on.

3. They focus on outcomes and results. Instead of getting bogged down in checking off tasks or blindly going about their work, Hidden Leaders will take a look to the horizon to understand what the end result is. That desired result could be the completion of a project, resolution of an issue, or implementation of some kind. Whatever it is, they understand what your business needs to accomplish, and allow those objectives and results to guide their actions. Sometimes that means doing something different and setting a standard for new best practices. Other times, times it may mean following the chain of command to get an exception made. Whatever it is, they focus on achieving your goals, not simply trading time for money.

4. They get it when it comes to your customer. Hidden Leaders understand what your customers (the ones that pay the bills), are trying to accomplish. They help to identify unintended consequences, or problems that haven’t been considered. They reveal opportunities that haven’t been considered. They are able to marshal resources across your business—not only in their department, to help in addressing customer needs or desires. I call this being customer purposed, recognizing that these employees had a deep understanding of what customers were trying to accomplish with a companies products and services, versus simply performing their functional role in delivery.

While it is necessary to have strong leaders in senior management roles to create a great business, I contend it is not sufficient. If you want to have a great business, you’ll need to cultivate leaders at all levels of your organization—especially in the places where you haven’t been traditionally looking for them. If you do it well, think of the value you create for your business—with virtually no capital investment at all.

Scott Edinger works with senior leaders of companies like AT&T, Lenovo, and The Los Angeles Times. He is recognized as an expert in helping organizations achieve top and bottom line growth. In addition to The Hidden Leader, Scott has co-authored The Inspiring Leader (McGraw- Hill) and the Harvard Business Review article Making Yourself Indispensable, called by HBR a “classic in the making”. He is also a regular contributor to Forbes and the Harvard Business Review. As founder of Edinger Consulting Group, Scott has worked with leaders in nearly every industry sector, helping them formulate and implement growth strategies, increase revenue and profit, develop leadership capacity, drive employee engagement, and attract and retain talent.

Scott’s interview with Shawn Murphy from Work That Matters

Too often leaders rely on usual suspects—the people they repeatedly turn to for the most important work. Consequently good team members go overlooked. They’re hidden. This episode of Work That Matters looks at this phenomenon, the four facets of hidden leadership, and its impact to the business and people.


Get Employees To Act Like Owners Of The Business

“I want my employees to act like they own the company.”

I’ve heard senior executives say something to this effect dozens of times over the past few years. The idea that if everyone acted like they owned the place and gave it their all, we could be amazing. However, a few weeks ago, when I talked with a front line supervisor in a call center about what it means to “act like you own the business,” he responded with: “So does that mean I get to do what I feel like, drive a nicer car, and live in a nicer house?” Clearly, most employees in the corporate environment have never owned a business, or been in significantly senior positions to understand what having an equity-stake in a company really means.

So what do CEOs mean when they wish for employees who act like owners? Digging deeper, I hear: “I want people to be more accountable,” or “My employees should work harder and be more committed, not just trading time for money.” “They would be able to understand how we all work together to bring value to our customers,” and “I want them to get the big picture of our business.” These statements start to sound a lot like leadership. But not leadership in the way we’ve been taught to view it.

We tend to look upin organizations to position and title for leadership. But the truth is, leaders can and should be found at every level of your company. James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, writing in the foreword to my new book, The Hidden Leader, put it simply: “It’s not about position or title. It’s not about power or authority. It’s not about being a CEO, president, general, or prime minister. Leadership is not about who you are or where you come from. It’s about what you do.”

Bridget Jay is an individual contributor in program development for a mobile technology company called Q-Stream. Bridget’s job is to translate the client’s business goals into a strategic program plan. But Bridget has gone above and beyond her defined role at the company, by taking accountability for her work, seeking a deeper understanding of the client’s business and by working across divisions of the company to widen implementation of Q-Stream’s product. Thanks to Bridget’s ownership and leadership within her service role, this account has grown from $25K to $1.5 million within two years. Want more people like Bridget on your team? If you do, you have to identify the characteristics and observable behaviors of employees who act like owners:

  • They are enthusiastic and they are not just trading time or talent for compensation. Not enthusiastic in a rah-rah kind of way, though a little bit of that can be nice occasionally. They have passion, positive energy and excitement about the business or some element of the work. These employees have a clear perspective on how the company provides value to customers and specifically how they contribute to that value. This has a contagion effect, bringing others along with them: the lab tech who enthuses to colleagues about aiding in the diagnosis of disease because of accuracy in the team’s specimen processing, or the sales rep whose fervent belief in the product energizes her fellow reps. That’s inspiring leadership.
  • You can count on them to do what they say they will do and act with integrity. These employees are honest, trustworthy and consistently reliable. They should be easy to spot because if there is an important assignment, they get it. A priority client to work with, they are involved. A mission critical project, they are on the team. Because they hold themselves accountable for the results of their efforts, they might even do things outside their job description, like the customer support rep that chooses to come in on her day off to make good on a commitment to finish a team project. They take responsibility the same way successful leaders or business owners are accountable and demonstrate their commitment.
  • These employees have strong relationships across the business, not just within a silo. The strength of their relationships isn’t just about being friendly or collegial, but are based on trust. They develop trusting relationships with team members, colleagues in other parts of the company, and even “higher ups”, through their expertise. It could be a technical expertise like software coding or expertise in a discipline like marketing or sales. This expertise forms a base of credibility and creates confidence in their decision-making. When your company needs cross-functional collaboration to launch a new product or implement a new system, the key to making it work are these employees with influence across divisions and often up and down the chain of command. They help knit an organization together with their leadership.

If you want to create a culture where everyone behaves like an owner, or a leader, seek out and reward the hidden leaders within the ranks of your company. They are the exemplars that will help you to establish standards. Then measure, coach and develop these behaviors and characteristics with the rest of your employees. What is hidden now just may become one of your greatest assets.

Do you know of individual contributors or front line supervisors that display strong leadership? I’d love to hear about them as part of my continuing research on Hidden Leaders and the impact they make, so send me a note about them by clicking here.

The 4-Hour Leader

When I bought the The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss in 2007, I was captivated by the concept of working just four hours a week. I enjoyed Tim’s writing style and I started to apply some of his philosophies to my work life (although I never did achieve a four-hour work week.) A few years later, I heard Tim was writing a follow-up called The 4-Hour Body, which at first struck me as a very odd sequel. Then it hit me that his work was really about rapid learning and how to achieve the greatest results with the least amount of effort. Tim was simply applying the same principles he’d used in decoding work place efficiency to diet and exercise. It turns out that these principles can be applied in many disciplines, if you know precisely what needs to be done and the most efficient way to do it.

I interviewed Tim Ferriss about the principles behind his “4 Hour” series. In order to break down the task to be accomplished to its essence, Tim uses a process of Deconstruction, Selection and Sequencing. Here is how I’ve applied similar principles in my work with leaders.

Deconstruction breaks a complex process or practice in to discreet parts or tasks. For instance, in research for the article I coauthored here in HBR, Making Yourself Indispensable, over 20,000 leaders were analyzed using 360-degree feedback data on dozens of leadership competencies. The goal was to determine which leadership characteristics most often separated excellent leaders from their average and poor counterparts, and 16 competencies emerged from our process of deconstructing great leadership.

Selection is about isolating the most impactful of these essential characteristics to focus on the critical few versus the (more) trivial many. It’s the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule. When I coauthored the book, The Inspiring Leader, I was able to do additional research to delve deeper and understand which of those 16 key competencies was most valuable and had the greatest impact on the people they lead. In medicine it’s sometimes called the minimal effective dose, (MED). In pharmacological terms it is the lowest dose level of a pharmaceutical product that provides a clinically significant response, beyond which dosing is wasteful, or even harmful.

Finally, Sequencing allows you to test theories in different circumstances and make adjustments based on the results, to ultimately put them in logical order. In other words, to create an optimal progression. I’ve had the chance to apply my research as I’ve coached hundreds of leaders with varied styles in developing these competencies in diverse situations.

Tim is an investor and/or advisor to Uber, Facebook, Twitter, and Evernote, so I asked him about applying these principles to what he referred to as the “somewhat-nebulous area of leadership”. I took some of our conversation, combined it with my own findings, and below is what I’ll refer to with Tim’s permission as The 4-Hour Leader.

Leaders are bombarded with suggestions for improved leadership, and many of the articles, books and lectures on the subject offer ideas that may be helpful on some level. I know from my work with thousands of senior leaders that when you start to identify leadership characteristics, you will have a hard time finding one that you’d say isn’t somehow valuable or useful. But if you want the MED, then throw away those voluminous leadership development plans (that you aren’t following anyway) because here it is, The Four-Hour Leader.

1. Express a clear definition of success for your team, business unit, or company. Don’t equivocate about what you expect the team to accomplish and what the priorities are. This doesn’t mean verbose vision statements, but a well-defined and articulated objective and a few specific and measurable goals that you can communicate in a minute or two. The discipline of focusing on one unambiguous purpose (or Key Performance Indicators, also called “KPIs”) will enable you drive for those results and maintain focus, while avoiding deviation from the course and the distraction of “shiny objects”. We don’t know yet if A.G. Laffley’s plan to shed half of P&G’s brands is a good idea, but there is no question about the focus and direction of the entire company.

2. If you want buy in, then as the leader you have to sell. And be able to sell to a wide range of stakeholders, from board members and investors, to senior managers and front line employees to generate individual and group commitment to your direction. Leaders need people to buy in to your larger vision and be excited about their specific role in contributing to it. Change management guru John Kotter identified this as a vital component for leaders to gain the support needed for their ideas to achieve valuable results.

Ann Mulcahy, who led Xerox from the brink of bankruptcy has said that a good plan is important “But the bottom line is that it’s all about getting your people aligned around a common set of objectives. At Xerox, that was the difference between success and failure.

Leaders sell their ideas about the future by making an emotional connection, because while logic will get people thinking, it is emotion that will ignite passion and spur them to action. In my work studying how leaders inspire, statistically, the number one attribute of leaders who excel in motivating others is the ability to harness the power of emotions to move people to action. Enthusiasm, passion, caring, concern, and even anger have a strong impact on people and can be expressed in myriad ways.

Think about leaders you’ve observed. From Richard Branson to Herb Kelleher to Indra Nooyi. When they talk to people from small groups to large audiences, they are expressing emotions and it is anything but simply conveying the facts. They are excited about achieving great things, or concerned about the consequences of not taking action. They create a sense of deep commitment.

3. Demonstrate your integrity and make it visible. One of my clients recently delivered a restatement of earnings to Wall Street. That restatement could have been avoided because cash reserves were considerably higher than what was needed to deal with the change. The CEO took the position that it was necessary to disclose this difference in earnings, despite the attention and cost of doing so, because it was simply the right thing to do. When communicated to shareholders and employees, a sense of pride and belief in the future of the business was obvious because “this is the kind of company we work for…a company that does the right thing.” When I ask people about important leadership characteristics, an interesting thing happens on the topic of integrity (or character, honesty, etc.) They tend to rank it first, or they don’t mention it at all. Through discussions, I’ve concluded it means the same thing, which is that it is fundamental to leadership. As I highlight in my new book The Hidden Leader, it is viewed as the primary trait, or it is table stakes to even have the chance to lead. Either way, integrity is vital to leadership success.

That’s your MED for leadership and the prescription for accelerating your leadership ability: toss all the leadership competencies in a pot and they boil down to this. Many of the leaders I work with have a sense of massive overload, so Tim’s technique of narrowing one’s focus to a few things that make a huge difference is very appealing. The best part is that you can do each of these three things without much, if any, additive time. In fact, I bet you can do it in less than four hours per week.