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Leadership: Identify the Team Leaders You Didn’t Know You Had

You’re searching everywhere for the leaders you need – except among your “invisibles,” where you may be most likely to find them.
Leadership: Identify the Team Leaders You Didn't Know You Had
photo by ºNit Soto

“Are we looking for leaders in all the wrong places?” asks Paul Hemp, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, in an interview with Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill.

“No,” replies Hill, “but we definitely need to broaden our search.”

Specifically, Hill suggests that executives refine how they scour their own backyards to find the leaders they need. Certain tenets of corporate culture prevent high-potential employees “from growing into leadership roles,” she argues. As a result, many execs “shut off a rich source of talent.”

Who are these untapped talents? Hill calls them invisibles. “These are people who just don’t fit our conventional image of a leader,” she explains. “Because they don’t exhibit the take-charge, direction-setting behavior we often think of as inherent in leadership, they are overlooked when an organization selects the people it believes have leadership potential.”

As an example, Hill cites Taran Swan, who worked for Nickelodeon Latin America. “During presentations to senior management,” says Hill, “she would include members of her team, who, after a brief overview from Swan, each presented information while she sat on the side. She spoke only to offer support or clarification.

“She got pulled aside by a supervisor and told, ‘You’re making a career mistake. You’re not going to get ahead if you do this. It would be better if you came by yourself and made the presentations,’” Hill recounts. “In his eyes, Taran wasn’t behaving like a leader. Under her direction, however, her team built a strong presence for the channel in Latin America and met its overall budget in an extremely volatile market.

“All too often, little things—taking the lead in a presentation, appearing to know more than you do—are still seen as markers of leadership potential, when in fact they may represent traits that are the opposite of what we need in a leader today,” Hill concludes.

Even if you’re not as, ahem, traditional as Swan’s supervisor, the lesson here is to question any preconceptions you might have about how prospective leaders are supposed to act, notes Margaret D. Pusch in her essay, “The Interculturally Competent Global Leader.” Invisibles, she writes, “have learned to lead from behind, a paradoxical statement that aptly describes how many people, unable to acquire recognized leadership positions, have learned to get things done….”

In short: Don’t always judge a midlevel employee’s leadership potential by how take-charge she is. Why should you? After all, a midlevel employee is not in charge. If anything, midlevel staff can lose the esteem of their coworkers by acting bossy. But when they lead from behind – as Swan did in her presentation – they often get better results. And when it comes to evaluating leadership talent – for the present and the future – aren’t results what you’re looking for?

There’s a world of content re: “leading from behind,” ranging from Obama’s foreign policy to Professor Hill’s use of the term in a business-management context. Hill borrowed the term from Nelson Mandela. In his biography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela cites an axiom likening leadership to shepherding, of all things: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” At the HBR site, you can read an abridged version of Hill’s conversation with Hemp. If you’re wondering what happened to Swan, she is now a partner in a consultancy called The Media Fix. To read Pusch’s essay in its entirety, your best bet is to buy the book in which it appears, The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence. You can also read excerpts through Google books.

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