The Camouflage Effect: The Modern-Day Wardrobe of All Great Leaders

By: Shawn

Organizational norms often elevate leaders to near-mythical entities, as if they exist in a realm entirely separate from the very teams they are tasked to direct. Leaders are often viewed solely as organizational decision-makers, and rarely do you hear a leader characterized as a teammate, colleague, or even partner or collaborator. This distinction between leader and teammate appears to be a subconscious inference separating those who make up the team—the workers, and those who lead it—the decision-makers. What if the conventional gap we place between leaders and teammates is actually counterproductive? It's time to consider the revolutionary power of 'camouflage'—of a leader so embedded within the team that they become indistinguishable. 

In Sam Walker's book, The Captain Class, he posits that the defining factor of a great team is not necessarily its talent or coaching but the distinct qualities of the team captain. Walker identifies that the foundation of any winning team is within the collective. However, he also found a singular element strongly correlating renowned sports teams and their unprecedented winning streaks: one particular teammate’s character.  

This teammate? The team captain is a player who is not detached from the main element. They are not a coach or a manager and are not serving in traditional positions that might regard them as the decision-maker. Instead, the team captain is viewed as a participator—an integral member of the team who cannot be separated from the main body.  

 I argue that effective modern leadership is about blending in, not standing out. Hierarchies and positional authorities are increasingly becoming ineffective. The conventional image of a leader—elevated and isolated, dictating directions to a sizable audience—misses the importance of the collective. In today's volatile landscape, leaders should be deeply embedded within their organizations, making their presence felt from the inside out.  

Great leaders understand that they need to create less separation between themselves and their teammates; they camouflage—blending in as part of the team.  Doing so offers a litany of benefits to their organization:  

 

Your teammates will work harder for you and the organization when they feel their leader functions as a team member—fundamentally on the team, as opposed to being known as the figure who leads the team. 

Almost instinctively, teammates always observe their leader’s behaviors. They seek evidence to assess whether or not they contribute to the team’s workload. In your teammates' eyes, the more you as a leader are willing to help the team, even at the lowest levels, the more you care about them. Once your teammates have determined that you care about them through your servant leadership and willingness to work for the team, they will —almost inevitably—be willing to work harder and serve the organization.  

Your teammates will resist their natural inclination to fake or put on a façade in your presence; their familiarity with your presence will enable them to be authentic and truthful.

When leaders normalize their presence, they gradually chip away at their teammates’ natural defenses and potential trust boundaries. Often, your teammates feel distant from their leaders because of the existing power dynamics. The leader, usually called “the boss,” has the authority to write evaluations, performance reviews, and promotion letters. This gives the leader real power over teammates, which can shape and control how teammates engage with their leader. Therefore, leaders must engage often and serve on the team to reduce or eliminate this inherent separation that often arises from teammates viewing their authority as a threat.   

Leaders will become members of the in-group, which means they will be privileged to know where the real problems are, so they can resolve them quickly. 

Although issues that arise should be fixed at a level commensurate with the impact of the problem, when leaders are accepted into the in-group, they can act as internal mentors to their teammates to help achieve an outcome that is healthy for the entire organization. Furthermore, leaders can help anticipate and identify conflicts that impede organizational movement and growth. Often, leaders diagnose problems without understanding the whole picture. Just as a basketball captain—a leader and participator—can feel the rhythm of the game and spot weaknesses in real-time, a camouflaged corporate leader gains firsthand insights into what’s holding the team back. 

Leaders will authorize their teammates to take more ownership of their roles and shape their decisions to consider the best interests of the larger organization.

At every opportunity, a leader should reinforce when teammates take guidance and execute it in their name; this is ownership. Present leaders are more likely to encounter these instances where they can take time to authorize these acts. Additionally, leaders can use their access to their teammates to help build perspective. Frequently, your teammates can only see what they have access to, which will often be asymmetric and incomplete compared to their leaders. Thus, a leader’s presence can help bridge their teammates’ understanding, enabling them to make more thoughtful decisions at scale for the organization's benefit.  

Regardless of where you serve, as leaders, we must concede that the landscape of leadership is shifting. These changes are revamping hierarchical structures and minimizing the positional authority of one leader. The most effective leaders understand how to change their wardrobe to fit the environment they serve. Today’s leaders must wear camouflage. Doing so will elevate their organizations to perform at the highest levels. To stand apart, you must first blend in; challenge the status quo and lead from within, not above. 

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