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Leadership plays a critical role in most aspects of organizational life but no more so in creating a courageous organization.  Strong leaders are role models for what is acceptable (and what is not) within the organization and their behaviours, and to some extent words, are often a template for others.

However, leadership is not a formal position.  Although we often think of our senior managers and Directors as leaders, in reality their impact is often diluted by both their distance from most employees and their need to balance the many competing demands on their time. 

I want to talk about those employees who, while not necessary a manager in title, hold a leadership role by reason of their experience, personal ethics, consistent behaviour, and / or their willingness to share and teach others.  These are the employees that others look to for opinions or advice and I call them the ‘unsung’ leaders.

It is these leaders who hold the key to developing an organizational culture that accepts criticism, that constantly reviews the way it does things, accepts failure, takes thoughtful risks, encourages employees and defines its purpose in ways that are meaningful to every employee.

Senior management have an important role to play in defining the overall direction of the organization.  They can also send clear messages regarding the sort of behaviour they expect to see from employees.  Traditionally however, senior managers have relied upon their messages being cascaded through the layers of middle management (the ‘marzipan’ layer) to reach all employees.

This approach is outdated (to be fair it probably always was) and doesn’t reflect the way that employees communicate with each other, how they interact with the world e.g. social media, or how most workforces have moved from hierarchical / command and control structures to more informal, matric driven information based structures.

In reality, it is the behaviour of the unsung leaders who will ultimately turn senior management messages into organizational reality.  The success of any major change programme will depend upon whether the unsung leaders choose, consciously or subconsciously, to reinforce or ignore these messages.

So how can you connect with the unsung leaders?  Three steps will get you closer to talking to them;

1) Find out who they are

A simple step but the most important.  You can find your unsung leaders through a little bit of detective work and patience.  For instance, you could;
- ask managers who they turn to in their team for advice or a different perspective,
- make a note of those employees who ask questions or who volunteer,
- watch teams in action and see who others look to for advice or support,
- attend team meetings and ask for input – it might not be those who give the first answers but watch out for those employees who can change the dynamics of a room!

Remember, your unsung leaders are not necessarily going to be those employees at the higher grades or have the longer service.  

2) Figure out how to talk to them

Every organization has its preferred way of talking to employees, whether it is email, manager cascaded briefings, town hall meetings or something else.  However, your unsung leaders need the personal touch and if you want to understand what is really important to them (and therefore other employees) or you want to communicate key information with deeper rationale, you need to find a way that aligns with what you currently do but is directed at them.

Some managers form focus groups (formal or informal), others simply ensure they talk to their unsung leaders individually, while yet others instigate formal programmes such as ‘brown bag lunches’ or targeted employee surveys. 

However you choose to communicate with your unsung leaders, make sure it involves the third and last point. 

3) Open up two-way communication

If you want to truly understand what’s important to your employees and dramatically improve the chances of making meaningful changes, you need to ensure that your communication with your unsung leaders is two-way.  If you don’t talk to this group of employees already then you will get away with telling them information in the short-term, but very quickly you will find that this group of employees are considered unsung leaders because they are independent thinkers!  Abuse this independence at your peril!

The secret of two-way communication is to not only listen to the other person but be seen to take it into account when making decisions.  Actions speak louder than words and even if you choose not to follow someone else’s views, simply acknowledging that you considered them and where possible saying why you didn't follow the advice, will ensure that the communication is continued.


Your unsung leaders are a key resource to ensuring that culture change programmes such as whistleblowing and courageous workplaces are implemented well.  It only takes a few simple steps to engage them.