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Opening the Window on Internal Leadership

First published in the Maverick Paradox Online Magazine November 2020. Photo credit Alev Takil

There’s a lot of talk in my working life around leadership and change. Something I have heard a lot recently relating to these subjects is, in various forms, “these things are simple to say and hard to do well”.

I take a few things from this maxim. For starters, it’s easy to think that we know what to do, and how, but when we give it a go, it’s not as easy as we thought. We might even exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where we may assume we have leadership super-powers despite objective evidence to the contrary. Also, and more hopefully, when it comes to matters of leadership and change, it’s safe to assume that improvement and learning are always possible: there’s always more to learn and to master. And for Socialised Mavericks[1], improvement is not only a possibility – it’s one of the fundamental drivers for how we work in our organisations and work on ourselves.

One area of leadership and change where this applies particularly strongly is what my colleagues and I have come to call internal leadership. This is the sort of leadership that anyone inside a team, or in an organisation, can demonstrate, rather than “nominal leadership”, which is a matter of status or position. It’s about behaviour rather than where you are on the organisational chart.

It is very common for us to find teams of even quite senior leaders in organisations where, paradoxically, the level of internal leadership is low. It’s as if, in the team context, some leaders forget how to lead, or believe it’s something they can leave to the nominal leader to do for them! What can you do if you find yourself working in, or with, a team where this is going on?

For starters, a little disclosure goes a long way. Admitting our own limitations around internal leadership and showing a little human vulnerability and humility reduces the defensiveness of others around us: it increases psychological safety and trust.

One way of thinking about this is by considering the Johari Window [2], a developmental model that examines what we know about ourselves, and what others around us know about us. In this model (named after the psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham who originally developed it), the ideal is that our strengths and weaknesses are in the “Arena” – out in the open, known to us and to the people we work with. The act of disclosure moves stuff from our own awareness into shared awareness with our colleagues.

Figure 1: Feedback and Disclosure: The Johari Window

As an example of an effective act of disclosure around internal leadership, a manager had been newly promoted to a leadership team. He realised that he was somewhat in awe of his new peer group and was trying too hard to conform in the team meetings.

He found himself in the unfamiliar position of soft pedalling on issues that were of critical importance to him and which he knew were also important for the organisation. Yet he had been appointed to the team because of his Socialised Maverick tendencies: in particular, the ability to call things out plainly and fearlessly, the ability to identify practical solutions and the courage and vision to make change happen through others.

By admitting this soft pedalling to himself and his colleagues, he re-obtained permission to bring those strengths to the team, where they were very much needed. His impact within the team increased: he earned his place at the leadership table. What’s more, his disclosure encouraged some other leaders in the team to realise they had been sitting back more than they should. They too started to lean in more on matters of importance for the organisation.

The debates in the leadership team meetings became more robust and real. The whole team’s impact took an important step forward.

In this example, it would have been easy for him to step back and enjoy his new status. However, a simple act of disclosure showed a level of internal leadership that was important for his manager and to his colleagues.

On the other side of the Johari Window is feedback. This is where something that needs saying gets said. Often, disclosure is a good prelude to feedback – because it creates a climate where it becomes possible to say more things openly. When we give effective feedback as an act of internal leadership, it raises awareness of what others are doing and the effect that this is having.

Often when working with leadership teams, simply playing back something that just happened, and bringing the consequences to light, has created a real shift. In one situation, a very experienced but overworked head of a team was simply asked by one of his team to step back a little in their meetings – he was working too hard at commenting on everything. He allowed one of the other team members to run part of the meeting, being brought in for comment and, when required, a final decision once others had been allowed to have their say.

In this meeting, the participation levels were far more even than usual – a hallmark of high-performing teams – and the energy was noticeably higher. Everyone felt engaged. It was not perfect – there were plenty of points that the team took away to adjust for the next time it met – but it was a significant shift in the whole team owning its meeting. It started with a simple act of feedback – “when you step in too much, we can’t all contribute as much as we would like”. It turned out to also be something of a relief to the nominal leader himself, who was able to share the load with his very capable colleagues.

A particular form of feedback is “effort-based praise” (fig. 2). Where feedback in general creates an opportunity for improvement and learning, effort-based praise specifically builds the confidence and encouragement to have another go. It is essential in maintaining morale and accelerating learning in fast- changing environments, where getting things right first time can be hard to do.

In March and April 2020, as the world was adapting to remote working, this ability to “fail fast” and try new things quickly was essential. The ask for internal leaders in these situations was not only to spot who around them had the best information and ideas, but to encourage everyone to try yet another new approach, learn from mistakes and keep going. Praise for effort in these situations is essential – without which the perseverance from which results eventually arise becomes impossible.

Notice that this is not just the job of the nominal leader, who by definition cannot be everywhere at once, and is often furthest from the front line – it is the responsibility of anyone and everyone in the team.

Figure 2: Feedback, Praise and Behaviour Change

© Patrick Ballin

Opening the Window on Internal Leadership

Finally, there are two other behaviours to notice around internal leadership. One is the simple act of enquiry – asking good open questions, seeking to broaden ideas and verify details – something we discussed in a recent article about questions in my article Questions and Collaboration.

Enquiry is the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect: instead of presupposing we have the answers and knowledge, it assumes that we don’t but, by asking the right questions, they are there to be found. If we pair this with one of the signature behaviours of the leader we discussed earlier, whose strength was to “say things as he sees them” – calling out – we have a powerful repertoire for any internal leader. These, through simple and powerful tools such as the Johari Window, can help any of us to encourage internal leadership behaviours in our colleagues and develop them more in ourselves.

When we are opening the window on internal leadership – there will always be something more to learn.


[1] Socialised Maverick – Judith Germain. The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Power Behind Successful Leaders PublishNation 2017

[2] Johari Window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness – Luft, J & Ingham H (1955)


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