Jul 112011

Leadership: Great Leaders Often Lead From Behind

The classic image of a great leader is someone leading their troops into battle, or standing in front of a crowd, giving an inspirational speech. This classic image almost always portrays the leader out in front, at least metaphorically, if not literally.

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.

Next, let’s consider a simple leadership example on the parenting side that applies equally in the work or personal environment. Let’s say you are trying to teach your child to pay closer attention, to work hard and to not give up in challenging physical tasks. A recent example that occurred for me was out on an intensive cycling training with my son. I had taught him to draft off my back wheel so that he could avoid fighting as much wind resistance and conserve his energy to stay strong throughout our three hour high-intensity rides. He was doing pretty well and was strong enough physically, but I noticed that he was often getting distracted and falling behind. In this way, he’d lose the advantage of drafting and continue to fall further and further behind throughout the rides.

So I decided to try an experiment. I told him that now that he knew how drafting worked and how much easier it could make pedaling, he’d understand that since I was feeling a bit tired, it would be nice for me to draft behind him for a while. I wanted him to LEAD. The kid who couldn’t keep his concentration and was constantly falling off the pace was now put on the spot to set the pace for me. At first, he was a bit startled. He said, “You want ME to set the pace”? He spoke in a surprised tone, but I could tell that as much as he was a bit scared by the thought, he was also intrigued by the idea and the challenge. He liked the thought that he may be able to lead for once, instead of always following me. I said, “Yes, I’d like you to lead the next two laps. I don’t care what pace you set, but I want you to stay focused, keep pedaling and let me rest a bit by drafting off your back wheel”.

So we set off to see how it would go. You can probably guess what the results were. He set a faster pace than I had been setting, as he knew I could keep up and he wanted to impress me. He stayed focused the entire time. As we were finishing the second lap, he said to me, “You know Dad, I’m pretty proud of myself that I can take the lead and you can draft off me. I must be making great progress and getting in really good shape”. What could I say to that, but, “Yes, son, your progress is excellent”. Even better, once we were done taking a rest, I said to him, “I feel better now, you can get back on my wheel, so you can conserve your energy and stay up with me for the next hour and a half”. His response was, “No thanks, Dad. I still have quite a bit of energy and I liked taking the lead. It made me feel good. Let me continue to take the lead for a while”. For me, this was a great opportunity to continue to “lead from behind”. The collateral benefit was that, now that I was behind him and not working quite as hard at setting the pace and keeping us on track, it gave me an opportunity to observe his form, which allowed me to give him further insights into how to keep improving. This only continued to improve the quality of our workout and our progress. Leading from behind in this example, as is frequently the case, resulted in a “virtuous circle” that led to steadily improving team performance.

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.

Paul Morin

  • Great post. I couldn’t agree more. I started my first post-undergrad job about six months ago now, and I have been given the opportunity by the leadership of our client-serving team to take the lead on a relatively important workstream.

    I will be leading a team of three, including myself, and presenting our solutions directly to the executives on the client side. As a young professional looking to expand my leadership capabilities and stretch outside of my comfort zone, this is a perfect opportunity. And it is all because the senior leadership is willing to step back and give me a shot at delivering great service. Of course, they are there for reference and to guide the process, but I believe this will be the first of many transformational opportunities in my career.

    Thank you for a great post today!

  • Barret, first off, thanks for your comments. Secondly, you have tremendous perspective if you can see and understand all these nuances and you are just beginning your post-college career. That obviously bodes extremely well for your success in this job and the remainder of your career! If you take this “lead from behind” approach to heart, I think it will help you become both a great employee and a great leader in a shorter period of time than it may otherwise take. I wish you the best as you continue to develop your career and your leadership understanding and capabilities! Paul

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