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.

Edinger Consulting