Monday, July 11, 2011
Leadership: Great Leaders Often Lead From Behind
While this standard representation is pleasing on one level, on another it is misleading. In my experience and observation, great leaders often “lead from behind”. By leading from behind, I mean to say that they get their troops, their employees, their team, or whatever the case may be as prepared as possible, they make sure they are clear on the objectives, and then they get out of the way, or they “get behind” their followers. They don’t go away completely, rather they just make way and allow the people they are leading to get in front, take charge, take responsibility and get to work. In my experience, this is what the best leaders do, as the consequences of not taking this approach doom the leader to having to ALWAYS be there in front, or their followers feel lost. Let me explain with a few concrete examples.
First, let’s say that you are the leader of a technology security consulting company. You are the founder of the company and the one who possesses the great majority of the client relationships, the technical knowledge and the presentation skills for selling and presenting client solutions. As such, and given that you have the greatest financial interest in the success of the company, you have your fingers in everything. You are, as they say, the “chief cook and bottle washer”. You sometimes take other employees with you to client presentations and you listen to their suggestions, but you always take the lead on everything and you never give your employees a chance to “own” or be in charge of anything. What are the consequences of this approach? First of all, you are a prisoner to your business and your desire to always be the one in the spotlight. You have not developed confidence in any of your employees, nor have they developed confidence in themselves. Second, you have created a culture of followers, with none having experience in leading or taking accountability for anything. What if, alternatively, you worked with your employees to develop a clear strategy and a clear set of goals, then gave them incremental leadership opportunities, “got behind them” and gave them ownership and accountability for successively more important tasks and projects? Would that likely lead to a stronger team, better results, and ultimately, more freedom for you to not have to “lead from the front” all the time? With this alternative approach, you’d be able set up a system, goals, expectations, commensurate rewards, and then set your employees loose and “lead from behind,” just giving them feedback and guidance as they reached successively higher levels of competence and became leaders themselves.
Finally, a common example of a leader leading from behind in a sports setting is the quarterback in American Football. The quarterback stands behind the line of scrimmage and directs the offense. From that point of view, the quarterback can see how the defense is set up and can thus make real-time adjustments. There is another layer of leading from behind in the case of American football and many other sports. In fact, it would be more accurately referred to as leading from the side(lines). The head coach, the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator are on the sidelines providing yet another point of view and adding further perspective to the planned and real-time decision making on the field of play. In fact, there is YET ANOTHER layer of perspective in many professional sports, particularly in American Football. There is another group of coaches that could be said to be “leading from above,” as they are usually located in a luxury box above the field and look down on the action, then send suggestions for adjustments to the sidelines coaches, who then communicate the messages to the quarterback and other players on the field. In the end, it’s all about having many points of view and a variety of perspectives that can lead to better decision-making and better results on the “field of play”. This approach and metaphor of leading from behind, from the side and from above can be extended to many other sports and to many other organizational settings.
One of the key takeaways is that sometimes trying to lead just from the front is not the smartest way to go. It’s important to gain insights from as many perspectives as possible. Perhaps even more important is that once you’ve provided your input and guidance to the players (or employees, etc.) on the field of play, you have to give them a chance to execute, make mistakes, and grow in their own ability to make decisions, play the game and ultimately, become leaders themselves.
Have you worked with leaders who have “led from behind”? In a business setting? In a sports setting? In a family setting? Have you done so yourself?
I look forward to your thoughts and comments.