Can you recognise the “IN” and “OUT” leaders? by Kamal R. Mahtani and Sean Heneghan

The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for people to lead in different ways. In this piece, we highlight the concept of “IN” and “OUT” leadership. The idea was first brought to our attention in a Harvard Business Review article by Gill Korkindale. We summarise and extend the features of “IN” and “OUT” leadership and hypothesise that these features may be associated with individual dominant leadership styles.

“IN” leaders

The IN leader recognises that one of the most effective ways of getting results is to focus their energies on their team. IN leaders therefore make themselves highly accessible. They believe that if their people are professionally fulfilled and contented in their work and environment, they will produce high-quality outputs. As a result, IN leaders have a “people first” mindset.

IN leaders are excellent communicators as well as listeners. They spend time engaging and coaching their team, building trust and a sense of unified spirit. One of the IN leader’s greatest strengths is an ability to align the personal goals of individuals in their team with the vision of their group or organisation. They build capacity by prioritising the development of others, some of whom may go on to be leaders in their own right. IN leaders are not afraid to offer their knowledge and share their experiences with their team, but they do not always do so automatically. Instead, they tend to wait and listen until the time becomes appropriate. They are known for their straightforward and dependable approach. As a result, IN leaders achieve high levels of respect, particularly among their team.

IN leaders often show high levels of compassion. They are concerned for others. They are capable of showing empathy and seeing things through other perspectives. IN leaders use their skills to maintain harmony, act diplomatically and sensitively, and create environments for the common good.

Being an effective IN leader can take time. However, this will pay dividends. The experienced, emotionally and socially aware IN leader can plan, adapt, and act responsively, as dictated by the context. IN leaders are often the most effective leaders in the long term.

We hypothesise that the following dominant leadership styles may be associated with IN leadership traits: Coaching leadership, Servant leadership and Compassionate leadership.

“OUT” leaders

OUT leaders are dynamic and responsive. They spot opportunities and then work hard to pursue them. They can decide rapidly on a vision and strategy to achieve their goals, and how that will affect them and their teams. They engage in building, often quickly, internal and then cross-organisational initiatives and networks with colleagues. Their networks can span disciplines, and they use their charisma to draw people to them and their goals.

The OUT leader is keen to lead from the front and often turns to colleagues who are known followers or peers to get things moving toward their goal. The OUT leader is an excellent speaker, capable of convincing others of their vision and the pathway to achieving it. Followers of OUT leaders, who buy into the strategy and ideas, are often rewarded with greater involvement in making the OUT leader’s vision a reality. OUT leaders appear very time managed and focussed at times. As a result, OUT leaders are often perceived to be very effective team leaders by some. However, to others they may appear distant, detached, and lacking warmth and understanding. At times, their rapid and dynamic responsiveness may reduce opportunities for personal reflection and self-examination.

While their motivation for leading has genuinely good intentions, OUT leaders are strategic operators. They may develop and implement their own management strategy, before sharing it with others. OUT leaders are drawn to risk-taking, but their career, reputation, and profile are important to them – even if they may not articulate this. They recognise their emotions but can be cautious about what they say and to whom. They are keen to gain external visibility of their work, regularly engaging with social and sometimes mainstream media. They may actively seek opportunities to join external discussions, committees, or panels. OUT leaders build capacity by focusing on achieving their goals and the broader impact of these. They work hard and lead by example, but delegate work to other members of their team or temporarily de-prioritise work they feel is of lesser value to them. Once their specific goal has been achieved, they will seek new opportunities to apply their skills.

We hypothesise that the following dominant leadership styles and theories may be associated with “OUT” leadership traits: Visionary leadership, Pacesetting leadership and Transformational leadership.

Recognise your leaning

The examples above are extreme descriptions of IN and OUT leadership. Most leaders may fall somewhere on a spectrum of traits between these extremes, creating their individual hybrid type of leadership. It may be that personality type, job role and organisation dictate the style of leader required. We agree with Gil Corkindale that leaders, particularly emerging leaders, should be aware of both IN and OUT leadership, and identify their dominant leaning (a reminder that self-examination may not come automatically to a predominantly OUT leader). We extend Corkindale’s proposal by suggesting that an emotionally intelligent leader, with high levels of self- and social-awareness, will be agile enough to recognise the leadership style most suited to the specific context and adapt their actions to suit this. (Figure 1).


Reflect on your learning

Once dominant characteristics have been identified, leaders should spend time reflecting on why they lean towards IN or OUT traits. Is it because one is more comfortable than the other? Something that comes more naturally? Is it because they shy away from the external attention that an OUT leader craves? Or that they lack confidence in implementing the interpersonal skills of an IN leader? Leaders should then reflect on how their styles influence the individuals around them, their teams, and the broader organisation. An understanding of ones IN and OUT traits may identify potential areas for future focus, development and growth. Leaders may find ways of developing a balance of the traits we describe, which they can draw on when appropriate, extending their skills and furthering their effectiveness as leaders.

Dr Kamal Mahtani

Kamal R. Mahtani is an NHS GP, Associate Professor and Director of the Oxford International Primary Care Research Leadership and EBHC Leadership programmes, and Co-Director at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, @CebmOxford, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.

Sean Heneghan

Sean Heneghan is a Chartered Organisational Psychologist and Senior Tutor on the University of Oxford Evidence-Based Healthcare Leadership Programme.

Acknowledgement: We thank Jeff Aronson, Stephanie Tierney and Meena Mahtani for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Declaration of interests 

We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none. The views expressed in this commentary represent the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the host institution, the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care

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