A covert leader has a rather dramatic ring to it and sounds like someone likely to be heading up a secret unit on an international mission - all very James Bond.
The reality is less gadget-laden tuxedo and more white tie and tails.
The manager will need to be an expert communicator, but also humble enough to be aware of his or her own weaknesses
The term covert leadership was invented by Professor Henry Mintzberg, a renowned academic and author on business and management, who likens covert leaders to a symphony orchestra conductor. A covert leader, he says, is someone who can lead without seeming to be in a direct position of authority - they don’t seek absolute control over others, rather, through unobtrusive actions, they inspire others to perform and use their talents.
Almost everything in a symphony orchestra is highly standardised, says Professor Mintzberg, and the profession itself, not the manager, supplies much of the structure and co-ordination.
The result is that the experts - the musicians - work largely on their own, free of the need to co-ordinate with their colleagues, because they are all working from the same piece of music. In an orchestra, even though the musicians play together, each and every one of them plays alone. They each follow a score and know precisely when to contribute.
So, how do you manage experts who are often (deservedly) egotistical, confident and credible individuals? Who are powerful, not in seniority, but in expertise and knowledge.
The key is in getting the balance right. Listen, and weigh up their suggestions, then decide to what extent you should defer to their experience. The leader should be aware that, although they are not completely powerless, neither do they have complete control over everyone they manage.
People who have ‘expert’ status can often be loners and difficult to integrate into a team. It takes an orchestra conductor’s subtlety to manage them effectively. Managers in this position must listen to what the experts say, then, where necessary, challenge them in a diplomatic but authoritative way.
It’s not a case of blowing your own trumpet, but allowing other people to blow theirs. Covert managers should be strong enough to make a decision, but allow the ‘experts’ to think that it was their idea.
In the same way as a conductor does not necessarily possess the skills required to play every instrument in the orchestra, a covert manager should not focus on having the technical skills needed to perform a role, but on influencing people to use their own skills to come together with their team to get the job done.
This means the manager will need to be an expert communicator, but also humble enough to be aware of his or her own weaknesses.
If there is an area in which they are not good at communicating, they should be strong enough to appoint a ‘co-manager’.
Despite having a deputy, the covert manager should always remain accountable - as with the orchestra conductor, there is no scope to pass the baton.