Invisible Leadership

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 17

Can a leader be invisible? The well known Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu claimed the highest type of leadership is barely perceived by those being led. In the modern western world, we value highly visible, charismatic leaders. What does invisible leadership look like today and how effective is it?

Affiliative leadership, which emphasizes building self-sufficient teams and improving people’s capabilities, is the antithesis to how many in North America typically view leadership. The leader accepts responsibility for results while promoting the successes of the group and individuals within it. There is considerable emphasis on removing obstacles and providing support to encourage people to grow personally and professionally.

Let’s look at the case of a new leader (Chris) for an existing team coming in to a situation where there is discord because one team member (Mohammed) doesn’t seem to work well with the rest of the group.

Chris gets to know everyone on the team: their strengths, their goals, how they do their work, and how they interact with their colleagues. Mohammed’s situation stands out as unusual for several reasons. He works in a different building because the internal customers he specializes in serving frequently encounter problems that are both urgent and important. They love the service they receive, and upper management recognizes the value of this work. The rest of the team, used to being in shouting distance of each other, have to walk ten minutes to Mohammed’s office or phone or send email; sometimes he’s not in his office or the answer to a phone call or email message is not immediate. Mohammed seems to work long hours, arriving before most of the team and leaving late. He also doesn’t participate in periodic department meetings that are held at a nearby pub.

In getting to know Mohammed, Chris learns that he’s a devout Muslim. He answers the call to prayer that occurs several times each day, making up the time by extending his work day. His customers are aware of this oddity in his schedule because they work in close proximity. Mohammed will not eat food that is not Halal and doesn’t go into any place where alcohol is served. With these restrictions, of course Mohammed isn’t conforming to group norms.

Chris discusses the problem with Mohammed rather than immediately changing conditions and expectations for the group. They work together on messaging to make it clear that Mohammed has constraints on his availability and procedures to improve his responsiveness to team members. Mohammed changes his voice mail announcement to let callers know when they can expect a response. He posts office hours on his door and shares them with the team by email as well. Department meetings are rescheduled to a time and place that allow everyone to participate. With clearer communication, more social interaction, and a level of shared information that Mohammed controls, he becomes better integrated with the rest of the team and his work is valued. He starts collaborating with other team members on projects where there are shared interests and complementary skills.

When Chris moves on to another position, Mohammed achieves one of his career goals by being promoted to team lead. His collaborative work style and insight into systemic problems are even more important to the department in his new role.

How does an invisible leader work with their peers?

Chris is a member of two committees, both of which tend to have large, somewhat chaotic meetings. The Chairs are overwhelmed just sticking to the agenda and trying to maintain order. A few people ignore standard parliamentary procedure and speak up whenever they have something to interject. A few others have given up trying to participate as anything other than an observer: best get ideas out in email where they’ll at least be read.

In each case, Chris approaches the Chair and offers to provide facilitation. Chris can track who requests to speak through commonly used body language like directed nods and a raised hand, keep track of the order, and provide a subtle hand signal to the Chair indicating who should take the floor next. Chair A accepts the help and Chair B rejects it.

Meetings for Chair A’s committee start running more effectively in the first few facilitated meetings. The Chair, relying on Chris’s facilitation, can focus more on keeping discussion moving productively and sticking to the agenda. People who had been reluctant to speak in meetings start contributing. One or two committee members who had been used to dominating meetings, finding their participation limited, push at the boundaries and eventually accept the new norms. Chair B hears of the change but refuses to approach Chris for assistance: meetings continue to be disordered.

Affiliative leadership doesn’t achieve quick results. It takes consistent application of active listening, investigation of systemic factors, and a commitment to collaboration. On the occasions when it works quickly, the practitioner’s established reputation as a leader who gets things done generally comes into play. Consider Peter Drucker’s consulting practice: he would encourage the business owners to speak, ask a small number of questions, and come up with a brief statement or question that showed his clients they have everything they need to start solving their problems and work more effectively.

The invisible leader walks beside the people on their journey to success without outshining them. Whether the road was always there and simply not on the map or whether they built the road together, who can say?


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