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Find the Reverse Leaders in Your Midst

Harvard Business ReviewIn the spirit of reverse innovation, and reverse mentoring, I submit to you that the next trend to watch out for in leadership is, you guessed it — reverse leadership.

You’ve likely seen reverse leadership in action. It happens when someone not in a formal leadership role demonstrates great leadership ability: when a field service agent steps up with a solution to a persistent problem, for example; when a customer service rep inspires her colleagues through her exemplary customer-centric behavior. When someone on an account team improves dramatically after being constructively coached by a fellow team member.

Reverse leadership doesn’t replace regular leadership. Nor is it a sign that the official leaders in an organization are doing a bad job. Quite the contrary. Rarely does strong leadership ability show up at lower levels in the hierarchy if senior leaders aren’t very effective in their roles.

Some reverse leaders are people quite content to remain individual contributors, like the scientist who has no interest in managing a team but cares deeply about the company’s mission. Others are young employees just approaching or on the first rungs of the formal leadership track. Still others have some leadership abilities but lack some vital element of leadership, like the sales professional who excels in creating strategy but doesn’t yet have the skills needed to manage a sales team.

In my work with focus groups, interviews with leaders, and reviews of frontline employees’ performance appraisals, I’m seeing more and more of these reverse leaders. But I’m not seeing many organizations able to recognize them — or cultivate their talents to gain a competitive advantage. What are the characteristics you should be looking for to spot your reverse leaders?

  1. They’re the ones with strong interpersonal skills born of self-awareness. Reverse leaders lead through influence, not authority, and they gain that influence by making strong interpersonal connections. To do that they must be self-aware enough to understand the effect their words and actions have on other people. As more and more knowledge work requires people to work effectively with peers, the example of the way these people treat their team members becomes increasingly important to organizational effectiveness for all leaders, formal and informal.
  2. They focus more on results than on process. Anyone can follow the process, as the old saying goes, but it takes leadership to know when to break from it. Reverse leaders don’t break rules simply to be rebellious. They break them because they’re focused on the outcomes rather than the process for producing outcomes. In this regard, reverse leaders can be particularly helpful to savvy leaders in formal positions who are wise enough to encourage their reverse leaders to point out when means are being prioritized over ends — and then to listen to them when they suggest ways to address the issue.
  3. They exhibit particularly high degrees of integrity. To lead by example requires integrity of character. People who have a choice would rather follow those who say the same thing up the chain as they do with their peers, those who are consistent in their approach in dealing with problems in different circumstances. While this is essential to reverse leaders, it’s an important model for all leaders, regardless of where their authority comes from.
  4. They have deep professional expertise in at least one discipline vital to the organization. Whether that deep knowledge is in sales, products, finance, technology, or some area that creates important value for the organization, reverse leaders need to have a specialty. This expertise serves as a source for their authority, giving them the credibility to be taken seriously when they highlight unrecognized problems or propose unanticipated solutions.
  5. They maintain an unswerving customer focus. Maintaining a focus on the customer is one way to lead by positive example, and an advantage reverse leaders may have over formal leaders, since they tend to be found further down the organization and by extension closer to the customer. Reverse leaders can be the exemplars of customer-focused behaviors in ways that leaders in formal roles — with their broader responsibilities — can’t. And such focus can have tremendous value to any organization, if properly recognized and encouraged.

Some of these reverse leaders will move up the ladder and progress, as we would expect. Others will need to wait until they develop additional skills. And others will be content to contribute right where they are. But organizations that can recognize them, cultivate them, and learn from their example will be a step ahead of those competitors that don’t and instead squander the services of the unrecognized talent in their midst.