The concept of leading from behind used to frustrate me. It struck me as a cop out, as a way to avoid doing what was necessary. Generally, in my mind, it used to be about a would-be leader not performing and everyone else having to step up to fill the gap. It meant the commander lacked vision, so they simply hung back to see where others might take them. Or worst still, in their cowardice, they would just let their team go out ahead and if something bad happened, they could blame others and remain safe –effectively becoming the Pierson Puppeteer of the business world.
Of course my first introduction to the concept came after complaining to someone about a past boss’ inability to lead. They suggested that rather than focus on the boss’ weakness, I should look to how my own strengths could support organizational objectives – how I could fill in the gaps. Although I was somewhat dubious in obliging this request, the result, for a time anyway, was better morale and better productivity for my team and me.
Since then I have changed my perspective – from assuming it meant weak leadership – to recognizing that leading from behind can mean vastly different things, some of which are positive. Nelson Mandela is often quoted when speaking to this leadership style because he popularized the idea in his writings and through the following quote, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
Its important to note that he mentions that the leader moves to the front in times of danger and that there is an intended direction.
In organizations focused on innovation and breakthrough technology, the idea of leading from behind is particularly effective. In this sense leading from behind means giving employees the space they need to think and act creatively about desired outcomes. Individuals are encouraged to engage, to argue, to express differences of opinion and to act collaboratively. Tightly regimented activities or overbearing processes will not stimulate the discovery of new and more efficient ways of doing things. It’s hard to foster originality when autonomy is missing in action. Using a more traditional leadership style, creating a vision and then inspiring others to implement it, may simply bring the organization down to one person’s limited vision.
Implicit in a leading from behind approach to leadership is also that employees feel safe. Leading from behind means that when actions are taken they are treated as exploratory rather than a verification or test of being correct. To paraphrase Harvard professor Linda Hill, “In environments where leading comes from behind, you have experiments, not pilots.”
Experiments allow you to learn and explore. Even when they fail, you learn. From an employee engagement perspective, leading from behind means creating environments that employees want to be in. Spaces that are collegial and that support independent thought, creativity, and the exchange of ideas effectively become strong communities. These are always appealing to employees. We all like to be paid well, but we will stay in environments that are comfortable and inspire our creativity. They are also essential to productivity.
In many respects leading from behind is really about tapping the strengths of the collective.
This takes me back to where I started; leading from behind should not be about supporting a weak boss. It can be about being open, inspiring, supportive and having a strong enough ego to allow employees to show their strength. It is about embracing an environment of innovation.
What’s your your preferred leadership style? Do you believe in leading from behind? Have you ever worked in an environment where the leadership led from behind? Would you like to be in an environment where the leader works from behind?
Interesting Articles for Those Who Want to Know More:
- How to manage for collective
- HBR: Leading From Behind
- Leading from behind, what it is…and what it is not
Image by Anton Mauve [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons