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Indirect Leadership

Last Friday I went to Stockholm to listen to a breakfast seminar held by Mercuri International. The subject for the morning was Indirect Leadership. I thought the subject was especially intriguing because of the ‘indirect’ aspect of it. And once I started to think about it a little bit it hit me that I personally have not really made the distinction between direct and indirect leadership.

Kari Larsdotter Hedman and Hans Blank presented the topic which was based on research from Swedish Defence University around challenges for higher management and their many years of experience working with management teams and executives.

They started with defining what they meant with indirect leadership. They defined it like this: “Indirect Leadership is when you are able to create trust in the organisation without meeting with your coworkers in your daily work”. They said that indirect leadership focuses on how your attitudes and intentions affect the behaviour of the people at lower levels in the organisation. They also brought up some particularly important aspects for leaders at higher levels to think about.


The importance of trust cannot be emphasised enough. This is something that many people have written a lot about but Kari and Hans mentioned especially three things about building trust.

The first things they brought up was to show trust. Even if you feel a little bit uncertain, I will show them trust anyway. This will strengthen their confidence and increase the possibility for them to succeed.

Secondly was about creating a feedback culture: This is more than just between you and your subordinates but at every level in the organisation and in any direction. A feedback culture enable feedback to go up, down and sideways in the organisation.

Thirdly, speak to people. They came back to this at many occasions; the importance of speaking to the people in the organisation and at all level. Management consultants Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman used the phrase “Management by walking around” in their book In Search of Excellence. It does not have to be more complicated than asking some quick questions when you are going between meetings. This communicates so much more than the answers you get on your questions.


Information is interpreted through our own perspectives. Messages are distorted as easily as a game of Chinese Whispers. Important information get lost in lack of communication or information overload. These are all example of filters in the organisation.

Filters exist in both directions. We have filters from the top to the bottom but we also have filters from the bottom to the top. On a question from the audience, Hans explained that the world is full of non-contracts. “I will probably get to that later” can from one side be interpreted as practically done already and from the other side unlikely to happen. It is important to know exactly what we mean with what we say.

As a leader it is also important not to assume that everyone understand but that ask questions to confirm that they have understood (Have you understood, is not a great question however) and to create a culture where it is okay to ask “stupid” questions. If you have the attitude of “how hard can it be”, you will not achieve that.

Middle managers

Effectively leading those who are close to you will have an impact on how you lead those that are far removed from you. It is important that you are a role model to the managers who are reporting to you. Your actions will either contradict what you are saying or reaffirm it. It is important that you are living the company values.

It is also important to show your genuine concern for the middle managers. There are many lonely middle managers out there because their managers are far away and invisible. Give support, encourage, guide, inspire but also confront contra productive behaviour when it is needed.

A third thing that was mentioned concerning middle managers was how you choose them. Everyone does not have the fortune to choose their managers but if you are, what would be the criteria for your choice? Have you carefully considered the needs of the organisation, your own biases for personality and behaviour and do you have people around you to cover your blind spots? How you choose your middle managers will have a great impact on the trust in the organisation and be a key ingredient in your indirect leadership.


Kari and Hans also talked about indirect leadership through the image that we have. Simply how we are perceived by customers, media or within the organisation. Your intentions might be good but the truth is in the eye of the beholder. Again, the way to know this is to talk to people, interview them and ask for honest feedback.

They gave a picture of image of a container; I as a container. Can I for example contain my own emotions? If not, there is a risk of rumours being spread, gossip start and motivation drop. But also that I can deliver a message with my own words even if I do not agree with them fully. People will quickly see when you mean what you say or if you read from a protocol.

Finally I would like to say that the morning was very interesting and Hans and Kari did a great job at presenting, exemplify, and draw from their experience. Thank you very much.