You can usually determine the leader of a group, meeting or organization, even when he or she is not in the appointed leadership position. Having been in the military for the past 20 years, I’ve interacted with my share of appointed leaders, and though many sat at the head of the table, another person led from the shadows. In one of my favorite books, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell, discusses the importance of the law of influence and how it is the true measure of leadership. He ascertains that true leadership cannot be appointed or assigned, and that leadership must be earned. Shadow leaders exhibit some common attributes that aspiring leaders may want to emulate.

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.― John C. Maxwell


Often, the person dominating the conversation or meeting may not be the real leader of the group. The shadow leader understands that, at times, his or her role as a facilitator may be more important than continually expressing their opinion. Influential leaders must learn how to lead a meeting without being the center of attention. This is accomplished by encouraging others to be part of the conversation and speaking when there is a relevant point or comment that would add to the discussion. Shadow leaders have an innate ability to interject relevant discussion points to spur ideas or conversations, then back away to allow the meeting to progress. Leaders must understand the power of his or her words and then master when and how to use them. If you use your words with surgical precision, you will notice that you are talking less, but when you speak, the group listens.


As a young leader, I would find myself in a meeting trying to defend a decision or convince others to support my position. Unfortunately, as a result, the discussion would progress well beyond the point of relevancy and this would hurt my position more than help. As I grew in experience, I learned when to let things go and to follow-up at a time when the audience would be more receptive to my suggested course of action. The follow-up didn’t guarantee concurrence, but at least allowed time for thought and reflection on the suggested way forward, which usually led to constructive discussion. Shadow leaders understand that when new ideas or controversial decisions are presented to an organization, they will seldom be met with unanimous agreement and sometimes the majority will be opposed to the direction in which the leader chooses to take. However, a vital attribute of a successful leader is to know when not to belabor a position in hopes of swaying the vote. Allow for subordinates to provide their opinions and grievances, and genuinely listen in hopes of understanding their point. However, when it becomes clear that discussion is no longer constructive, move on.


Successful leaders understand the importance of communication and the need to adjust how they communicate based on the audience. Shadow leaders have mastered the art of influence and how to communicate from a non-appointed position of authority. As a warrant officer in the U.S. Army, I serve as a technical leader, though I am primarily an advisor to an officer who is responsible for command decisions. Though I am seldom the final decision maker, my advice often weighs heavily on the decisions of those commanders I serve. Therefore, when communicating to senior commanders, I focus on providing my opinions and suggestions based on the facts and my expertise as a subject matter expert. Experienced leaders value these opinions and barring unknown external factors, will usually go with the suggested course of action with only minor modifications. In addition, depending on the commander, I adjust my presentation to the style that that will be best received. Shadow leaders are usually well-versed in the personalities of those they must influence and quickly learn how to best communicate with leaders across the organization.

Shadow leaders can be found in every organization and they are often masterminds behind the success of a company. They likely won’t be the CEO, commander or head, but the person that everyone knows and works through to accomplish critical tasks. In your next business meeting or team update, sit back and see if you can spot the shadow leader of your group. You may want to take some notes.