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Chapter 3: Inner Leadership


Leadership skill is crucial to leaders who work in the vast middle ranges of the corporation, the agencies of government, and all other social institutions. Yet the literature is largely silent about leadership in the interior. Nevertheless, it is often here that the best leadership happens. Certainly quantitatively more leadership takes place in the multiple work communities in the middle of the corporate hierarchy than it does at the top leader level.

Unfortunately, the leaders in the middle of the corporation do not always get the credit they deserve, nor have they received due recognition historically or theoretically. The top leaders get the credit, and those in the middle - who do the work - are largely ignored. This is true in all social institutions - business, government, the arts, and education. History focuses on the top leaders and the big events. The big problems and the famous leaders get the headlines and the chapters in history books.

Notwithstanding the public acclaim garnered by top leaders, success or failure in most situations rests on a cadre of lower-ranking officers and their followers. The work of the many leaders in the inner levels in any large-scale organization does more to determine both CEO and overall corporate success than does that of top leaders. These leaders are the people who create new futures for themselves and their work communities. They design new programs policies and operating procedures. These inner leaders also implement that policy, oversee process activity, and assess work done against planned outcomes. They deal directly with corporate staff on a one-to-one basis, assess human potential, and integrate human capital with money, material, and technical resources.

Defining 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). 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). 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,"). Only 20 percent of men and 36 percent of women say they are followers. The fact is, as Kelley 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). 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) 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) 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), 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).

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). 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) 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). 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) is therefore another critical area for leaders in the middle, one not so vital to the authority-laden CEO (Carson).

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). 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.

Methods Of Leading From The Middle Of The Corporation

Inner leadership is practiced in all social organizations and the full range of other leadership venues. The relationship between top leaders and their inner leaders and inner leaders and their coworker colleagues can make or break both organization programs and personal careers (Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy). Effective inner leadership obviously connotes competent, loyal, and energetic support of the CEO's agenda. It also demands that inner leaders be prepared to function in the unique culture they themselves create in the middle precincts of the corporation.

The differences between top and inner leaders described previously are real. Nevertheless, for a hundred years the professional literature has described the leader as a lone hero demolishing obstacles, leaping tall problems in a single bound. This "hero leadership" model implies that great things are accomplished by one larger-than-life individual who issues orders, gives direction, empowers less well equipped coworkers, leads the way, articulates a compelling vision, and changes behavior patterns with elan (Bradford and Cohen; Bennis).

While compelling, this hero model (Covey) was never the case in practice. Rather, inner leaders rely on the theory of values-based leadership. Of course, some of what inner leaders do is informed by orthodox theory. But the unique culture in which they work makes traditional theory only marginally useful, if at all. The inner leader's values form the basis of the work community's vision, the root of behaviors acceptable to that community, and the basis of the leader's influence with others.

The need today, as never before, is for top and in-the-middle leaders to form clusters of close-knit partnerships throughout the corporation (Johnson). In partnership arrangements control doesn't reside in a single person. Rather, power and responsibility are dispersed, giving the enterprise not one superstar but a whole constellation of costars. These partnerships can be alliances in which the pleasure of working together and of being together compensates the inner leader for living in the shadow of the more celebrated CEO hero (Heenan and Bennis).

Specifying specific skills, methods, techniques, and attitudes of mind characteristic of inner leadership is the focus of this resource. To list and describe them here would be redundant. As readers peruse the following parts of the book, they will discover something of the range of inner leadership techniques they must master. The techniques discussed in each subsequent part of this resource are presented as characteristic of the major differences between middle and top leadership.

Nevertheless, three points can be emphasized here that will aid in understanding the techniques and methods of inner leadership. The first is that, if there is one generalization we can make, no change can occur without a committed work community and inner leaders. Exemplary top leadership and institutional success are impossible without the full inclusion, initiatives, and cooperation of the core of middle-level leaders. Today's complicated and global problems require complex alliances. Success comes when top leaders recognize that there are many inner leaders on the team who want to work in creative alliance with them.

A second summary point is that good leadership and followership are part of the same process. Both roles let inner leaders exercise the full range of their talents; engage in meaningful, important work; and mature as self-actualizing human beings. Excellent inner leaders follow their bosses and are actively engaged with them (Kelley). Both top and inner leaders and their core followers come to understand and respect followership as a legitimate, valuable part of work life. Both kinds of leader can expect their people to be responsive when they are candid about the importance of followership and they model that behavior as appropriate (Townsend and Gebhardt).

Finally, inner leadership is not always merely a stepping stone to the CEO's chair. For many people, the role of inner leader is a deliberate professional choice. Making that choice provides as strong a platform for serving all those with whom the inner leader interacts as the CEO's chair does. For indeed, it is inner leaders as much as, if not more than, their bosses who make the work community function - and they always have.

Discussion Issues And Questions


  1. Leaders who work in the middle ranges of the corporation use unique skills.

  2. Inner leadership has a dual definition: part structural, part personal. It describes the type of leadership that takes place in the middle. It also deals with the impact of the leader's core values that guide each leader as well as each follower.

  3. Quantitatively, and perhaps qualitatively, more leadership is exercised by middle-level leaders than by figurehead top leaders.

  4. Inner leaders occupy a unique culture, unlike that of their bosses. They foster dissimilar goals, use some distinct leadership techniques, and apply others skills differently.

  5. Forming alliances - partnerships - between the CEO and these second level leaders may be the wave of the future.

  6. Followers are key to all social action and success since they provide the strength, power, capacity, and facts top leaders must have if they and their organization are to succeed.

  7. Leadership in the middle of the agency can be defined as 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.

  8. Each person comes to work to get his or her personal values, vision, goals, and outcomes met, not just (often not even) those of the corporation.

  9. Values and a values-based work culture, not system or procedure, are most important to our success as inner leaders.

  10. Inner leaders inspire follower obedience.

  11. Inspiration, not motivation, characterizes the inner leader's relationships with followers.

  12. Inner leaders use their personal power more than authority power.

  13. Inner leaders learn to both trust and be trustworthy.

  14. Inner leadership concerns the whole person of both leader and led.

  15. Inner leadership is not always merely a stepping stone to the CEO's chair. For many people, the role of inner leader is a conscious choice.


  1. What are the essential components of inner leadership? How is inner leadership different from top leadership? From middle management? From line workers?

  2. Provide one example from your experience of an effective inner leader, and describe briefly his or her typical behavior in relationships with you?

  3. In your experience in the middle of your corporation, have you ever functioned as a leader? In which relationships did you find it easiest to lead successfully? Explain.

  4. What obstacles do you find most challenging in functioning fully as an inner leader?

  5. Differentiate middle management from inner leadership. Are the arguments here similar or different from those proposed in the literature to differentiate leadership from management generally? Specify.

  6. Can you be an effective inner leader and not also be a values leader? Explain your response.

  7. How do you think your boss feels abut the idea of leadership being exercised in the middle and with the objective of securing the inner leader's goals, not just corporate ones?

Inner Leadership Learning Activities

Activity 1: Dimensions of Inner Leadership

Instructions. Understanding inner level leadership is more difficult than understanding some past models. As a way to get in touch with the dimensions of this model, complete the following activity.

  1. Concentrate on those elements and feelings involved in the inner leadership model.

  2. After you have analyzed your understanding of this method of leadership, make a drawing depicting inner leadership.

    Use pictures, diagrams, colors, words, numbers - whatever is needed and available - to create a visual object that represents what you know about inner leadership.

    Be expressive and creative in your drawings so that what they indicate will aid you, and perhaps others, to understand the dimensions of inner leadership more fully.

  3. After you have completed the creative aspect of this assignment, prepare a written analysis and explanation of what you have drawn.

  4. Share both the drawing and your analysis with a colleague or friend.

Activity 2: Sitting in Council with Others

Instructions. Read the following short statement and then respond to the questions listed below.

For inner leadership to work up and down the organization, new ways of viewing the leader–follower interaction are necessary. Counciling-with followers is a new insight into the relationship between leader and follower. It is essential for this model of leadership that inner leaders learn to delegate even, or perhaps especially, when followers are not fully prepared or the work community is in a change mode.

Sitting in council with followers puts the leader and follower together in an equal, sharing relationship, both committed to realization of the vision and the tasks at hand and both caring for the values of the others. Ideas flow freely as influence shifts from person to person. Any or all may propose or alter ideas, methods, problems, and solutions.

A counseling role used typically by top leaders is unilateral action taken by the counselor (leader) toward another person. In a word, counseling is telling. Counciling-with followers is, rather, finding out together what is right, proper, and needed. Followers become advisors and inner leaders learn from the followers (Fairholm). This shared approach is often discussed in terms of participatory or democratic approaches to management. This technique is based on relationship and meaningful interactions - the essential elements of leadership.

Discussion Questions

  1. When talking with coworkers, do I tell them things or encourage a sharing of information?

  2. Do I encourage group discussions and facilitate group dynamics? Do coworkers frequently exchange ideas?

  3. Do I have the self-esteem to allow others to have good ideas and take the lead at times? What challenges does this approach present? Analyze your typical operational responses to these kinds of challenge.

  4. Am I able to synthesize group information and formulate decisions or next steps?

  5. What do I need to know or learn to do to increase my expertise in counciling-with coworkers?

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