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Invisible Leaders Are the Best?


Much of the talk about leadership is about how the leader looks and how he should act to be seen as being most effective by her followers. But I think there’s another perspective; that the best leaders, to paraphrase the old saying about children in Victorian times, are best not seen, and not heard.

That might seem a bit heretical. Isn’t the job of the leader to be seen and heard so that people know what she wants and can see an image of direction that they would like to follow?

Well yes, but only sometimes. A good leader knows when to be seen and heard, and maybe even more importantly, when not to be seen and not to be heard, at least not through the normal senses. I call them invisible leaders.

I have known many leaders who had mastered the skill of being invisible. Moreover many of these leaders had also mastered the skill of knowing when to be visible or when to be invisible. Most of them, I have to say, were invisible most of the time and only came up for air occasionally.

Maybe that’s not the classic conception of leadership but I can also say that in almost all of these cases, these leaders were extraordinarily effective. So much so that one of the most frequent questions asked about them was: “How does everything work so well here even though were never see Joanna?”

So here’s a partial answer to that question. It’s partially because I think invisible leaders have many skills and approaches that are not well understood, even by the leadership literati. In many cases I think that invisible leaders cultivate this lack of understanding because they don’t want their secrets of invisibility to be well understood, lest they become less effective.

So here are some of the strategies followed by invisible leaders:

  1. They rarely issue edicts; instead they let their wishes be known to be merely suggestions and let people decide for themselves whether or not they want to follow them. If they don’t, the leaders let well enough alone and go on to the next idea. If enough good people don’t think it’s a good idea, either he will drop it or try another suggestion.
  2. They rarely tell people to actually do something. Instead they divine what a person really likes doing, or something he really wants to do now, and then they let it be known that she would have no objection that the person does it. Of course then the person does it very well because they own the idea, not the leader.
  3. When taking many decisions, instead of making the decision themselves, they allow the decision to bubble up from below and then they follow it. In this case it appears they have followed the team rather than led it so their people feel that their views have been respected and followed which increases the level of engagement by the followers.
  4. They frequently set up informal committees or groups to look at and suggest decisions. They are careful not to direct these groups and even to tell the groups what their own view or recommendation is, but still allow enough – but not all – of their thoughts to be known so that the group will not stray too far off the reservation.

As I mentioned, these are only some of the techniques followed by invisible leaders. But these four are the basics. Even when they are visible, invisible leaders still use these techniques to a greater or lesser extent.

You might think that some of these techniques are manipulative. So be it. The questions are: are they any more manipulative than conventional techniques for command and control? Are they worse than straight commands? Is understanding your people so well that they do things that you don’t tell them a do bad way of leading? I wouldn’t necessarily think so.

An invisible leader might seem to have a lot in common with the Level 5 leaders talked about by Jim Collins in his famous book “Good to Great”. I’m not a great fan of the science behind the book but I think that a Level 5 leader comes closest in the popular imagination to what I see as an invisible leader.

But I think Jim Collin’s Level 5 leaders still had PR guys and the full panoply of the public company CEO albeit more muted than in the usual case. My invisible leaders are far more muted and far more subtle than I think Jim Collins’ Level 5 leaders ever were, especially when you consider the well-known less-than-stellar epilogs to many of them.

In any case, I think the techniques of invisible leaders are well worth studying. In this leadership-obsessed age, sometimes the focus is on the overt signals of leadership rather than being simply effective. And taking on the mantle of invisible leadership is surely one guard against leaders whose power goes to their heads, or who are destructively narcissistic. Or think that being publicly decisive is the only way to be a good leader.

Next time you see an organization where things seem to be going well, but you can’t see how the leader is doing it, ask whether they are one of the best types of leader, the invisible leader.









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