Table of Contents, Inner Leadership Resources Page Previous Section, Inner Leadership Next Section, Inner Leadership


Inner leadership has a dual definition: part structural, part personal. It describes the type of leadership that takes place in the middle of the organization, whether a business, government agency, or any other social institution. It also deals with the impact of the leader’s core values that guide all leaders, as well as their followers. Neither of these two definitions of leadership is routinely discussed in textbooks, classrooms, or boardrooms. Nonetheless, quantitatively (and perhaps qualitatively) more leadership is exercised by middle-level leaders than by the figurehead top leader. If, by chance, reference is made to the work of inner leaders, it is assumed they have the same objectives and use the same and techniques as top leaders do.

This assumption is faulty. Inner leaders occupy a unique culture, unlike that of their bosses. They foster dissimilar goals. They use some distinct leadership techniques and they apply others skills differently than do CEOs. These different points of view, goals, and ways to lead are the subject of inner leadership, or leadership in the middle. An understanding of the inner leader’s perspective may help the many leaders in the middle of the organization be successful. CEOs also need to learn about the methods inner leaders use to get their way in groups so they can better collaborate in corporationwide work.

The conventional wisdom says that there is usually only one formal leader in each work group; the rest are followers of that chief executive. The fact is, every work community has many leaders besides the chief executive. Indeed, forming alliances—partnerships, really—between the CEO and these secondlevel leaders may be the wave of the future (Moxley, 2000). Traditional definitions suggest that inner leaders are followers of the boss. That may be true, but unfortunately the idea of “follower” has negative connotations for most people. Americans are conditioned to think of followers as passive, while operational experience contradicts that view (Miller, 1992). Many followers are routinely compelled by their work to be aggressive and courageous, to assume responsibility and be willing to challenge their bosses.

The public perception, nevertheless, favors the up-front CEO over the behindthescenes inner leader. One survey showed that 70 percent of men and 59 percent of women see themselves as leaders (“Do You Consider Yourself a Leader or a Follower,” 1994). Only 20 percent of men and 36 percent of women say they are followers. The fact is, as Kelley (1992) says, that today almost everyone takes a turn leading groups. Indeed, followers are key to all social action and success for there can be no leadership without followership. Corporate success in meeting productivity and profitability goals is keyed far more to the work of good middle-level leaders than it is to excellent CEOs.

Because number-two leaders are not often in the spotlight, it is easy to think of them in generic or homogeneous terms. This is a mistake; they vary tremendously in education and experience, in goals, and in talent. They are not robots. They have their own visions, to which they pay attention and their own measures of the importance of the group’s work and the level of effort they are willing to expend in its accomplishment.

The inner leader’s perspectives on these things are often different from, sometimes even counter to, the official corporate vision. Given these facts of leadership life in the middle of the corporation, it is these interior leaders, not the chief executive officer, who constitute the heart of corporate leadership today. Studying mid-level leaders, therefore, becomes vitally important to understanding corporate success in today’s dynamic and fast-changing work world.

Differentiating Inner Leadership from Top Leadership

At least six dimension of difference between inner and top leadership can be identified. Each is discussed here beginning with the first dimension of differences, definition.

Distinguishing Inner Leadership from Top Leadership

Several characteristics of inner leadership techniques stand out as dissimilar to definitional characteristics often ascribed to top leaders or leadership generally (Suzaki, 2002). The first of these has to do with the core definition of inner leadership. Leadership in the middle of the agency is fundamentally different from the descriptions implicit in more traditional leadership theory. For current purposes, inner leadership is an interactive relationship between a leader and several followers voluntarily engaged in situations (communities or cultures) where leader and led are united on values terms and trust each other enough to risk self in participation in joint activity. Some of the aspects of this definition need to be emphasized since they describe a vital facet of inner leadership. Singly and together they differentiate inner from top leadership.

First, leadership is a social, not a structural, phenomenon. That is, it happens in social relationships that are consciously created separate from and sometimes diametrically opposed to formal corporate structural components. These relationships between leader and led are personal and intimate in ways that differentiate them from conventional work units. Once created, they need to be maintained; and, therefore, manipulating relationships is both a part of the distinctive definition of inner leaders and one of their key operational tasks. It is in these intimate relationships that the leader’s personal agenda (Crosby, 1996) is realized, not alone but in joint activity with the other members of the relationship. Of course, some CEOs focus on relationships; most focus on the more formal structural forms that help make up corporate organization itself and are easier to create and maintain.

Second, the inner leader’s relationships are with followers, and followers are always volunteers. They do not have to follow. Of course, workers must show up, do some work, and be polite. But successful inner leaders somehow attract willing followers to do what they want done. In-the-middle leaders often cannot order their coworkers to do anything—this is especially true of their bosses and peers, who do not have to accept their leadership unless it benefits them to do so. They cannot order these people to comply with and accept their vision. By contrast, the typical CEO sees workers as merely “ employees” or, worse, “subordinates,” but certainly not as volunteers.

Third, inner leaders intend to change people’s lives. While CEOs focus on agency productivity and growth, inner leaders deal with both production and their followers’ professional and personal growth and maturation needs. Inner leaders accept the task of developing their followers as leaders in their own right. Focus on this kind of transforming change is a critical aspect of inner leadership. It is influencing others to change and then trusting them to do their best in the absence of the CEO’s authoritarian controls.

Fourth, leaders are in service to others. Top leaders think that the employees work for them. Inner leaders know that when they provide their followers with needed resources, time, and plans they (leaders) become servants of their followers—they reverse the pyramid. Their job is to prepare followers to provide high quality, excellent service to clients, customers, and each other. Rather than attempt to force followers to this kind of behavior, inner leaders, prompted by a desire to serve their stakeholders, in effect go to work for them— providing all things necessary for follower success.

Fifth, an element of this definition has to do with the inner leader’s followership role. Inner leaders are both leaders and followers of the lead of their bosses, coworkers, and customers when the situation dictates they behave this way. This element is not often considered in the professional literature, yet to ignore the followership role is to ignore half of the idea of leadership. Every member of a work community is both a leader and a follower (Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy, 1999) at appropriate times. In an era of flat organizations, with many more designated internal leaders than before was common, this is an essential characteristic of inner leadership (Brown, 1977), one most CEOs ignore.

Six, inner leadership is also characterized by mutual interactive trust. The element of trust in any work community is critical to leader success in attaining both personal and work-community ends. Over time, no cooperative work can be done without interpersonal trust. It is a necessary and essential element of any leader–follower situation. It is especially the case in relationships in the middle of the corporation because the leader’s followers are people who choose to accept the leader’s orders, instructions, guidance, standards—anything. They cannot be forced to do so.

At the core the definition of inner leadership is the leaders’ value set. Inner leaders assure their goals are met by using their core values to create a work community, determine its values, and vision, and create a culture to maintain them. These tasks constitute crucial inner leader techniques. Since the CEO, all other in-the-middle leaders, and their workers also have values they want generalized in the group, another of their key tasks is values-displacement techniques in a situation of alternative value-sets and competing subcultures. Values are so important that they can be ranked as a major difference between inner and top leadership.

Inner Leaders Lead to Realize Their Personal Agenda

Obviously, each individual lives in multiple social groups and interacts with a variety of others in all facets of daily living. Their perception of their role is personal, unique for each group member. That is to say, both leader and led view their thoughts and actions from the unique perspective of their own individual values and experiences. Each worker comes to work to achieve personal values outcomes, realize a personal vision, and attain personal goals, not just (often not even) those of the work community. Corporate CEOs may be shocked to learn this about their workers and their subordinate leaders. But it is true—all people come to work for reasons personal to them! Part of leadership is forging values unity in this cauldron of values diversity (Truskie, 1999).

Creating a shared values system from this mix of individual competing values systems, therefore, is the basis of all interrelationships between people. For community to exist, the individual’s values must come to be consonant with a system of variously rated values that guide his or her life and actions in the group and that make that action conventional, predictable, and acceptable to peers. This is a part of the definition of community—any community, including work communities.

Members join groups primarily to utilize the resources of the community and their relationships in it to help them get their needs met. Of course, workcommunity members also do the corporation’s work, either because they have to or because they come to value it as one of their preference values. Group values constitute a network of known and shared norms that members take for granted and provide the infrastructure of any community. They are the standards by which members judge their own actions and evaluate and rate those of others. Given the truth of this analysis, setting and shaping work-community values become key inner leader tasks. Developing and promoting such a valuesbased work culture is more important to the work of inner leaders than any formally announced corporate vision or values statement or the policies, systems, and procedures proceeding from the corporation’s vision statement.

The task of inner leaders is to create a set of values that support their personal agenda for the work community and generalize it to all members as preferable to their own values constructs or the corporation’s formal values system (Crosby, 1996). In this way they unite their followers into a work community around their (the leader’s) personal values. Indeed, setting and changing work-community values is the leader’s prime job. It involves creating a subculture helpful to the realization of values goals. Unless followers share their leader’s values, they will expend effort in trying to satisfy their own values, which, from the leader’s point of view, produces waste.

In a situation where the inner leader is not in full control, the most powerful tool is shared values about the work (Bjerke, 1999) because everybody has values, and those values trigger our behavior.

Inner leaders Inspire Follower Obedience

A third unique aspect of inner leadership is that inspiration, not motivation, characterizes the inner leader’s relationships with followers. The conventional wisdom is that the CEO’s job is to motivate workers. So-called motivation is based primarily on tangible, physical, or economic rewards; and to the degree that top leaders can allocate needed rewards to compliant followers, to that degree they “motivate” them.

The fact is that no one—leaders included—can motivate someone else. Motives are internal to the individual and directed by the individual. Leaders have little to do with creating motivation because all motives are personal. Workers behave in a given way in response to their own inner drives. Thus, the only true motivation is self-motivation. When someone else, through his or her behavior, actions, or words, induces other individuals to act, he or she does something other than motivate them, even if the professional literature describes it as motivation.

So-called motivation is actually one set, or a combination of three sets, of actions or approaches leaders might take. They can create or alter their work community’s environment so members can satisfy their own needs while ( hopefully) also doing needed work. Or they can do something to awaken a dormant motive or change the priority of a member’s inner motives to action. Or, finally, they can excite and inspire other persons to action to satisfy by that action their needs and, optimistically, the organization’s. Top leaders can induce follower action most easily by resorting to the first two approaches. Inner leaders opt for the third approach—they inspire their followers to desired action and shared results because they cannot use external inducements to “buy” compliance.

Inspirational inner leaders influence others through emotional, even spiritual, forces or methods. They animate others, stop doubt, and encourage coworkers to act without thinking (Roberts, 1907). They apply action to people’s hopes and give them new—renewed—purpose. Leaders in the middle use physical and ideological symbols to mute questions and impel people to act without thinking to realize the leader’s desired and outcomes. Inspiration goes beyond facts by putting members dreams into words. It appeals to a need to be part of and engaged with others in lofty enterprise.

Inner Leaders Use Personal More Than Authority Power

Inner leaders use their personal power, not their authority, to get followers to think and act their way. They cannot always use their authority power, the power of their position, to force compliance as their top bosses can. Rather, they rely on forms of power based in their personal capacities, personalities, ideas, ideals, and expertise to get others to follow them. Using personal forms of power helps leaders generate and sustain trust.

Both leaders and led are regularly in relationships where they compete with their colleagues for dominance—the capacity to get their own way in the face of competing action by others. Inner leaders normally find themselves in situations where their understanding of what is happening increases by viewing the relationship in terms of political power. Skill in using power is therefore critical to inner leader success. Expertise in the theory and practice of organizational power politics (Fairholm, 1993) is therefore another critical area for leaders in the middle, one not so vital to the authority-laden CEO (Carson, 2001).

Inner Leaders Learn to Both Trust and Be Trustworthy

Inner leaders use trust to get others to perform the way they want. Trust is not based on authority couched in procedures, resource control, and disciplinary systems. It is based in an eventually proven reality. Leaders may not know a follower will deal correctly with them but, if they trust the follower, they will act as if they do. The idea of interactive trust is seen in friendship, in family and social life, and in the art that reflects life. Because their leaders trust them, followers learn that their work need not be routine and enervating. Rather it can generate hope and eventual success.

Inner leaders lack the degree of legitimate authority of top leaders to publish and enforce their policies and procedures. They get compliance, therefore, because of their trust in others and their own trustworthiness, not their control over the mechanisms of command.

Inner Leadership Concerns the Whole Person of Both Leader and Led

Inner leaders act from the base of their whole selves, their spiritual cores (Ruppert, 1991). They treat their followers as whole people as well. Top leaders mostly deal with that part of followers’ capacities directly related to needed tasks as outlined in position descriptions. Inner leaders get followers to give them more than just what is on the position description. They ask for and use all the capacities of each follower. They create relationships based on ideas and values that bond them to followers at their deepest emotional—spiritual— levels. It is their personal core selves—their spiritual values and needs—and not job skills that determine the character of inner leaders’ relationships with others.


These few ideas define and differentiate inner leaders from their CEO bosses, peers, and subordinates. Of course, these differences may be somewhat overdrawn when applied to a specific agency or a particular boss. Still, they define tensions that face both top and inner leaders. As inner leaders accept these differences, this knowledge may assist them to be more personally and professionally successful leaders since these distinctions are critical in working in the middle and in understanding its ideal and practical niceties.

Table of Contents, Inner Leadership Resources Page Previous Section, Inner Leadership Next Section, Inner Leadership