Leading from Behind, Shepherd or Sheep?

'Shepherd_and_Sheep'_by_Anton_Mauve,_Cincinnati_Art_Museum

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:

Image by Anton Mauve [Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at https://commstorm.com/ Learn more about my experience at ca.linkedin.com/in/debrayearwood/
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14 Responses to Leading from Behind, Shepherd or Sheep?

  1. spottedgeckgo says:

    Not sure if it’s the same, but when training people in my profession, I find that sitting back and letting them take the reigns is more helpful in the long run. I don’t like micromanagement and would rather encourage someone to take the helm and lead. It engages them in a way not otherwise easily accomplished. They have a stake in the final product, and then more often step-up to the responsibility. Any time I train someone, I want them to sign their name on the final product. It empowers them and creates new leaders. I can vouch for those people. I’m there for guidance, not to oversee every little detail.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more on the micromanagement front, the idea of doing it to someone else seems like such a colossal waste of time. The key thing that you mentioned, is that while you allow them to take the helm, you are available for guidance. That is critical to effectively leading from behind.

  2. Hi Debra: I am used to the concept of leading from behind as that is the concept that Toastmasters Int’l uses– that of the inverted pyramid, where the members are at the top and perceivably run the show. I do believe that approach encourages more feedback from members and more enthusiasm for making the organization or club succeed.

  3. Interesting you should bring up this concept. An ex of mine who was a top leader on Wall Street was heavily into leading from behind. No wonder because it allowed traders to come up with all kinds of ideas and play heavily on the markets in new and dangerous ways. But when things went wrong, once heavily, he had to take responsibility. His name was mentioned in the media even though he, apparently, did nothing wrong and was cleared in court.

    In other words, it can be used in a positive way, like Mandela did, or negative ways as on Wall Street.

  4. This reminds me of the leadership style of the best principal I ever worked under. Most school administrators are either overbearing or too hands off. The principal I’m thinking of carefully orchestrated all details of his staff and how students were placed with what teachers by working with the counselor to best pair students with the right kind of teacher. The upstairs floor of the junior high was a team of more hard-nosed disciplinarians and the bottom floor the more nurturing types. He was so behind the scenes it was amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it and would love to have a boss like that again if I ever returned to the classroom.

  5. Debra — happy to read your post, so thoughtful, as always. I honestly hadn’t heard the term leading from behind. Smart leaders will step back when it’s called for — letting the next generation run with a project, or providing the environment for creativity and innovation without employees fearing to fail. As you quote Nelson Mandela, leaders step up when there is danger or if their teams start to stray.

    • Hi Jeannette, its nice to be back, though I think my posts will be less frequent than they have been in the past.

      I’m not surprised you have not heard the term, it tends to be used as a negative sentiment and as far as I can tell Harvard is still developing the concept of what it really means based on ongoing observation in different organizational settings.

  6. Diana says:

    I’ve missed you, Debra! My heart skipped a beat when I saw your blog update in my mailbox 🙂
    I have never thought about the leading from behind concept as such but after reading your post, it really resonated with me. After all, the best teams are not of “leaders” who bark out orders, but rather those who let each team members shine and thrive both individually and as part of the team; just steering the ship in the right direction and maintaining course, so to speak.

    Welcome back!
    ~Diana

    • Hi Diana!

      I have to say, although I’ve learned about alternative meanings for “leading from behind”, as a leadership style it is a challenging one and requires a very effective leader. I like the ship analogy that you used. It brought to mind two cruise ships, Disney and Titanic. 🙂

  7. jacquiegum says:

    You make very valid points, in terms of letting individuals create in a leading from behind process. Although, too often people identify the style as either the leader taking credit for the work of the creator, or worse, the leader who reacts rather than innovate. Politically, the term means something totally different! But you’ve given me a completely new perspective. You’re so good at that! Welcome back:)

    • Funny you mention the political interpretations of the term, there is an amazing amount of commentary on President Obama’s leadership style being described as leading from behind… but not in a good way. Strangely, it was one of his staffers that unintentionally got that ball rolling. I suspect that most people don’t see leading from behind as a positive.

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