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Leading from the Outside-In

March 11, 2012

Updated April 2, 2013

The world’s pretty messed up. No great insight there.

Give up trying to predict what’s going to happen and instead build your ability to adapt. If you’re in a leadership position, whether a formal manager or someone who takes a lot of initiative to lead your coworkers, the last thing you want to do is focus inwards.

Leading from the inside-out occurs when we hesitate to act as a result of our mental models (the accumulation of our life experiences and the subsequent assumptions we form about the world around us). When we lose our creativity and capacity to innovate, we end up taking the safe route. Risk-taking is avoided.

Leading from the inside-out is not the type of leadership organizations need in a tumultuous global environment. As Thomas Paine stated over two centuries ago: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

It’s about leading from the outside-in.

What makes leadership in the early 21st Century unique is the intersection of technology, the rapid emergence of new economies, and a population that is ageing in some countries yet showing growth of new labor market entrants in others. On top of this leadership challenge is the global culture aspect, geo-politics and growing concerns over climate change.

The above issues are part of the “unknown-knowns” that confront those who lead in various capacities. However, the much bigger over-arching issue is that of the “unknown-unknowns,” future events of which we currently have no clue or idea.

Humanity has a tendency towards hyperbole and arrogance. Give a politician a podium and the amount of bullshit emanating from his or her mouth is what farmers grave. The unfortunate aspect of this is that those who espouse have no clue of what they spread far and wide. To add to our misfortune the recipients (read voters) often soak it up, either in laziness, political affiliation (read American polarized politics) or in politeness (read Canada).

So what’s this leading from the outside-in all about?

To begin with, it’s important to understand that it’s NOT about you, the leader. It’s about the organization, whether a small or large company, non-profit, or a government department. If you’re in politics, it’s certainly not about you but instead your constituency. Leading from the outside-in, therefore, involves serving your followers to enable them to make a positive difference in their work, regardless of whether it’s in business or the public sphere.

It means that as a leader one of your key tasks is to constantly scan what’s occurring in the world around you and trying to make potential linkages to your team’s work. Depending on your context, this may mean understanding your immediate community, state, province, country or global issues. And then engaging your team to explore the meaning of change, how it may affect the organization, and how best to prepare.

As an outside-in leader, one of your top priorities is to build the change adaptability of your team’s members. How leadership is practiced in your team and throughout your organization is a cornerstone to achieving change adaptability. Outside-in leadership embraces shared leadership and the belief that leadership extends throughout an organization at all levels. JT

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.
– Thomas Paine


Photo by S. Butler


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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2013 12:38 pm

    I would enjoy a follow-up post showing three management situations, and contrasting by example inside-out leadership with outside-in leadership so that we can really see what the difference is. This sounds like an interesting idea and I would like to know more about it.

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