Identifying the Intangible Leader


Learning to see past numbers and results


In the field of leadership, we are often taught that leaders bring results. They bring impact. They are driven. They have energy. They change the course of mighty rivers.


In other words, there are obvious qualities that leaders have that make them readily identifiable on any given team – whether in business, in a church, community, or in sports.


We addressed those readily identifiable qualities in our second podcast titled: Characteristics of a Leader. I also wrote a blog with that same title.


Nevertheless, did you know there are leaders on your team that are diamonds in the rough?


They don’t bring those coveted results and yet, there is just something about them that makes you appreciate them and want to keep them around – you just can’t pinpoint their contribution accurately though.


Intangibles leaders are those who bring value to your team but whose potential is obviously not reached.


Merriam Webster defined intangible as “an abstract quality or attribute.”


And I have the perfect illustration to show you what we mean…


My wife and I have a guilty pleasure, we like the TV series Suits. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a TV show based on the ups and downs of a thriving New York Law Firm. It’s a well written show with great character development and great leadership lessons.


In season eighth’s first episode, Catrina Bennett, an up and coming lawyer at the firm, wants more opportunities to prove herself. As a result, her Boss Lewis gives her the unpleasant task to fire the least productive associates (rookie lawyers) at the firm.


To handle this, she crunches the associate’s numbers using a very reliable software.


When done, the results speak for themselves, and she knows exactly who should get the boot. However, one of those associates is her boss Lewis’ favorites – a man named Brian. Brian used to bring in good results, but since the birth of his child, his numbers have plummeted, and his priorities have shifted from his career to his home life – understandably.


When Lewis tells her firing Brian is out of the question, Katrina, a workhorse who puts up great numbers all across the board herself, is simmering in frustration.


Later, while Katrina is deep in thought and frustration in the associate’s office late at night, Donna, the firm’s chief operating officer and self-made muse and whisperer, comes in. She notices Katrina’s foul mood and asks her what’s bothering her.


In the ensuing conversation, Donna helps Katrina to see why Lewis wants to keep Brian around. Although Brian’s numbers aren’t great, ever since his desk has been at the center of the other associates’ desks, their numbers have gone up. Somehow, he has added so much value to the others as a team player, that everyone around him has significantly improved. Up to that point, these facts had eluded Katrina’s radar and evaluation. And then Donna says this memorable quote:


“There are players who never put up great stats, but you keep them around because they make the people around them better.” – Donna Paulson, Suits Season 8, episode 1


That’s the intangible leader summed up.


Do you have a Brian on your team? Someone with great qualities, but who seems to fall short in the numbers category?


In this blog post, I want to help you to identify those intangible leaders around you, or on your team, because failure to do so will eventually hurt your team, your leadership, and your legacy as a leader.


First of all, the intangible leader is not about the obvious stuff you can put on a spreadsheet. His contributions are NOT quantifiable. Let me repeat that: The intangible leader’s contributions are not quantifiable. So, he’s not about:


  • The Greatest Results
  • The Greatest Numbers
  • The Most Sales



That said, this can make him hard to identify on any given team or among your employees.


However, his contributions go far beyond what you can readily see and observe. As an entrepreneur, business owner, and leader, it is your duty to identify and build up those under-the-radar and potentially transformational leaders.


In the world of leadership, we are taught that true leaders bring results, period. We are taught that leadership brings quantifiable results: more wins, more sales, more followers, etc.


But you have to learn to see farther than numbers to build a legacy.



The Pareto Principle’s Blind Spot

We are also taught, that when we are building a team, we must apply the Pareto Principle if we are to build a highly successful team.


What is the Pareto Principle?


The Pareto Principle was coined by Italian economist Wilfredo Pareto, back in 1895.


He noticed that people in society seemed to divide naturally into what he called the “vital few,” or the top 20 percent in terms of money and influence, and the “trivial many,” or the bottom 80 percent.


The rule is applicable generally and is very accurate and helpful in business where it can make a huge difference in your results. The rule suggests that 20 percent of your activities will account for 80 percent of your results. And conversely, the 80% of ‘the other stuff’ will account for only 20% of your results.


So, what does this mean in regards to team building?


It means that, generally, 20% of your team members will bring you 80% of your results – and that 80% of your team will bring you only 20% of results.


Following this rule of thumb, we can safely teach team builders to focus 80% of their time and energy on the 20% of their team members who bring in results.


While this is a highly successful way to achieve results… it does have a blind spot when it comes to the intangible leaders on your team.


If you are not careful when applying the Pareto Principle, you could ignore and pass by the very important intangible leaders on your team.


In organizational team building, we are often taught to follow the Pareto Principle, with tips such as these:


  • Focus on training those who show you quantifiable results.
  • Don’t waste your time with people who don’t recruit or sell much
  • Keep your energy for your Rockstars, etc…


This isn’t bad per-se, but it has made many team leaders ignore their diamonds in the rough that intangible leaders are.


And what happens to the intangible leaders when they are ignored? They leave and achieve success elsewhere. And worse, they can…


  • Become your competition (that hurts)
  • Make you regret the day they left (that hurts too)
  • Become part of somebody else’s legacy (that hurts even more)
  • Forget the ever met you when they do become more successful than you (now that really sucks)


Let’s take an example from the world of sports where these intangible leaders are a bit easier to spot than in the business world.


In 1987, the Quebec Nordiques in the NHL were undergoing some problems; the team just wasn’t performing as well as they used to. So, they decided to trade one of their good players to remedy the situation. That’s a good enough strategy. Right?


Unfortunately though, they chose to trade their intangible leader… Dale Hunter. Dale Hunter was a gritty center with fairly good stats, but he wasn’t a superstar by any stretch of the imagination. The organization’s failure to recognize Dale Hunter’s deeper contributions brought about their downfall.


After the trade, for the next five seasons, the Quebec Nordiques were languishing at the very bottom of the National Hockey League and set new records in mediocrity.


You see, Dale Hunter was not the team’s greatest scorer, he was not their biggest player, nor was he their fastest skater.  However, he was the heart and soul of the Quebec Nordiques – and trading him hurt them bad. What Dale Hunter did on the ice and the dressing room made him the glue that held that team together.


  • He was the guy who was always willing to take a hit for the benefit of the team.
  • He was the guy who went for the loose pucks in the corner and got pummelled as a result.
  • He was the guy who racked up penalty minutes but who was also capable of grinding hard and scoring those important goals when all the chips were down.
  • He never backed down from a fight.
  • His teammates loved him, and his adversaries hated him.
  • Because of him, every player on the ice felt two inches taller.


Dale Hunter was an intangible leader in the world of hockey. While he has put up good numbers throughout his career, they weren’t great enough to earn him the recognition he deserves. However, The Hockey News – the most respected magazine in hockey, once wrote that he should be inducted in the hall of fame, because he was elite in the dual category of soft hands and sandpaper. In other words, he could score as well as he could fight.




What qualities do intangible leaders have:


1- Grit: Grit is that never back down quality where someone will always stay in the game no matter what. Grit is unfailing effort and energy that’s put in year after year. It’s when you expect something to be difficult, but you believe that it still can be done.


2- Teachability: Intangible leaders are humble and have a growth mindset – which makes them highly teachable. They enjoy learning – even when they are at the bottom of the learning curve.


3- Integrity: Obviously, integrity should be part of any leader’s quality toolbelt. Integrity often flies under the radar, but it matters so much!


4- Discipline: Intangible leaders are disciplined. They are hard-working and have a strong work ethic, even when their results don’t always shine. So, if he is lazy… he is not the intangible leader on your team.


5- Self-Awareness: Intangible leaders have insight because they know themselves so well. They know their strengths, weaknesses, and areas to work on. They also know when to take the blame.


6- Resourcefulness: Intangible leaders usually find a way when there is no way. And if they can’t they ask for directions. They pride themselves in a job well done.


7- A Strong Sense of Purpose: Intangible leaders usually have a strong sense of purpose and carry themselves differently. They have posture. They march to the beat of a different drummer. They aren’t motivated by numbers, commissions, and data, but  by a sense of purpose, contribution, and significance.


8- Self-Sacrificial: They are always looking for ways to help others on the team… therefore their own results may suffer. Making others succeed is what they enjoy most, even if they don’t get results or recognition along the way. They are A+ team players.




What you should do, as a leader, to identify the intangible leaders on your team:


What you want is to be able to accurately pinpoint who this leader is on your team. And there are things you can do and implement that will make your intangible leaders stand out.


1- Keep an open-door policy: Always make yourself available for questions, suggestions, comments, and make it clear to your team that your door is always open. This will make intangible leaders come out of the woodwork and you will see them visit your office with openness, forthrightness, and insight.


2- Create an atmosphere of safety: Creating a team environment where everyone feels safe, secure, and free is your job as a leader. This will empower team members to ask questions. And once they do… it will enable you to discern, by their questions, who your intangible leaders are. Here is a clue: Great leaders ask great questions.


3- Always consider effort: His results are sub-par? Did you consider the effort put in? Sometimes results just don’t measure effort and, as a leader, you need to be able to identify this phenomenon.


4- Recognize initiative and resourcefulness: Sometimes it won’t get done the way ‘its always been done’, the way you expect it, or even the way it should… but if it works, discerning initiative and resourcefulness is a good key to observe your team member’s value. Many intangible leaders can be identified by their resourcefulness.


5- Consider his impact on others: Is this potential intangible leader beloved on your team? Does he always ad value through words of appreciation, encouragement, and motivation? How do others perceive him and react to him? Do they really enjoy having him or her around? And most important: Does he make others around him better? Just like the clip from Suits. These are all very good clues to notice intangible leaders.


6- Notice the change on your team in his absence: How your team fares in his absence can tell more about your intangible leader than any of the above. So, take notice, when certain people on your team are missing in action… be observant of the ensuing atmosphere and results.




How to Help Your Intangible Leaders to Flourish


As a leader, you want to build up other leaders. In order to add value to your team and business, you’ll want to take those intangible leaders to the next level – which is, of course, that of full-fledged leader recognized by his peers. To do so, you will need to coach them and mentor them into greatness. Here is how:


1- Help him by valuing his existing contribution. Nothing builds up confidence more than words of appreciation and valuing a team member’s contributions. Also, you need to be aware that most intangible leaders have this in common: they may lack confidence in some areas.

Your praise to criticism ratio should then be five to one.

Meaning… for every negative comment, you should give at least five words of praise and encouragement. This builds up confidence in people – and it makes them want to contribute even more.


2- Coach him to value his own success as well (Mindset). Intangible leaders usually have no qualms about sacrificing for the team and building others up. In fact, they usually demonstrate high levels of servant-leadership aptitudes and self-sacrificial love.

The downside is that they may be a bit under-driven or too mellow when it comes to their own success. They need coaching to develop more of a go-getter attitude, the right winning mindset, and more confidence.


3- Teach him strategies to get those coveted results. Let’s not forget the mechanics of success. Successful people and leaders are creatures of habit. Help your intangible leader to set goals, put in place strategies, and develop those winning habits and see them rise from intangible to tangible.


4- Share with him the ‘BIG WHY’. Chances are your intangible leader sticks around because he believes in the bigger picture for your organization. The intangible leader will be motivated by the team’s vision, purpose, and higher contribution. For example, intangible leaders want to change lives more than bank accounts. They want to bring significance in their own lives and in other’s lives as well. They want to serve an ideal higher than themselves more than the company’s success. As a leader, it is your job to properly articulate this vision to him and the importance of it to keep him engaged, working, and growing.


As a leader, there is nothing more valuable than human capital. And the best part about human capital is its return on investment.


By taking the time to invest in your intangible leaders, you will get a return on investment that far exceeds anything your can put on paper. You can build a lot more through people than through any other means.






Check out our Podcast Episode on The Intangible Leader: LISTEN HERE!


A good blog about the intangible leader:


A good book about the intangibles of leadership:

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