Why You Should Lead Outside In Instead Of Inside Out

03/31/2015 07:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015

The most effective leaders think outside in: outside first, inside second. The true measure of success is not in the organizations, infrastructure or people leaders attract and develop, but in what those organizations, infrastructure and people get done for others.

I gave a talk this month to the Montana Ambassadors, a group of leaders appointed by the governor to improve the well-being of the people of Montana. While in Montana, I got to observe the state legislature in action and to spend time with an amazing collection of Montana's artistic, scientific and interpersonal leaders including Governor Steve Bullock and Montana native and former Navy Seal Team 6 member Rob O'Neill.

The difference between those working outside in and inside out was striking.

The problem with working inside out.

Leaders working inside out defined success in terms of what they got done.

Montana's legislature meets for 90 days every other year to approve a two-year budget - constitutionally required to be balanced. Some legislators act like that is the goal. It's not. What matters is the impact government has with the money it raises and spends. You would expect part-time legislators to stay focused on the people they serve. Yet some were clearly more interested in pretending to be professional politicians as they played small ball over petty squabbles.

Separately, a retired Montana University chancellor told me with pride how he had improved faculty morale over his tenure. However, at the same time, student enrollment declined. Happier faculty educating fewer students can't be the right order of priorities.

Still another Montana leader talked about strengthening his organization, increasing membership and members' engagement with the organization. But no one cares about the organization itself. They care what the organization gets done for others.

The problem with working inside out is the trap of getting stuck on the internal capabilities and politics, forgetting that internal capabilities create value only when applied externally.

The advantage of working outside in

Leaders working outside in defined success around what they got done for others.

Many started with a problem or an opportunity and built their internal capabilities to deal with or take advantage of it.

Renelle Bratten realized that well-endowed women often were inconvenienced, uncomfortable or embarrassed playing high impact sports like volleyball or soccer. So she invented a better functioning sports bra for those women and founded Enell.

Steve Holland and Greg Kohn were disappointed in the large amounts of natural gas burned at wellheads in gas flares. So they invented a way to capture that excess gas before it burned off and founded GTUIT.

John and Courtney McKee were living through the continuing decline in the Butte Montana community following the end of copper mining there. So they created Headframe Spirits as a way to strengthen Butte.

Starting with externally focused missions keeps these leaders and their team members focused on what matters and why. It allows them to cut through internal conflicts and politics in pursuit of a common purpose.

Not just outside. Outside in.

Seal Team 6's Rob O'Neill defined mission success as either rescuing hostages, eliminating terrorists or bringing his whole team home safely. During over 400 missions, he and his colleagues rescued Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, rescued "Lone Survivor" Marcus Luttrell from the Taliban and killed Osama Bin Laden with no team member ever getting hurt on those missions.

The primary goal was not keeping the team safe. The best way to do that was to keep it out of harm's way. But Seal Team 6 was created and trained to go into harm's way to make the world safer for the rest of us as a top priority and to stay safe itself along the way.


  1. Start outside with the problem or opportunity.
  2. Then turn your attention inside to build the capability required to solve that problem or take advantage of that opportunity.