In a world filled with leaders, Nelson Mandela stands out as one of the most effective and admirable in history. There are certainly many lessons we can learn from his example, and one of those is how to lead from behind.
In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela wrote, “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.” He compared this kind of leadership to shepherding, describing how a great leader “stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing all along that they are being directed from behind.” When leading from behind, you enable all members of your team to participate in moving the organization forward, maximizing innovation. So what does leading from behind actually look like?
Set goals and parameters. Leading from behind is still active leadership. It means shaping your organization’s culture and driving change. To lead from behind, you need to build a strong community that is united by shared values and goals. As a leader, you need to make the group’s goal clear, whether that’s developing a new product or overcoming a problem your organization is facing. Ensure that everyone is working towards the same goals, but leave space for different solutions. You also want to promote a set of core values that will unite your team and keep ideas on track. Does your organization value sustainability? Diversity? Experimentation? These values should be your team’s building blocks, and it’s up to you as a leader to define them.
Enable innovation. Our traditional view of leadership in the business world is of a leader taking center stage. We often believe the top leader should be the one coming up with and then implementing all of the best ideas. Leading from behind, however, often places leaders in a supporting role. This may feel counter-intuitive and require swallowing a bit of pride, but it can be the most effective way to produce wide-spread innovation. The goal is to enable your team members to emerge as innovators and leaders themselves. When leading from behind, you should provide support and inspiration. Create opportunities for learning and growth, such as workshops and a collaborative work environment, and reward new ideas. By enabling all team members to lead from within, you’re maximizing the innovation and good work your team can produce. You’re also encouraging all team members to invest in your success. That’s a recipe for great things.
Step forward in key moments. Remember, in his autobiography Nelson Mandela noted that the shepherd will “take the front line when there is danger.” While leading from behind often means playing a supporting role, there are times when it’s necessary to step forward. This is the particularly the case if you notice your team veering off-track. While you want to trust your team’s ideas, you should draw on your own experience and insight to make corrections when necessary. In times of crisis, you may also want to take the reins. For example, if you need an immediate solution to a sudden problem, a direct leadership approach may be more appropriate than leading from behind.
Keep in mind that leading from behind is just one of multiple effective leadership strategies. It tends to work best in non-urgent environments where there is time and space for new ideas to develop gradually. You also need a team of people who are willing to take advantage of opportunities for innovation. In a global leadership environment with other developing leaders, leading from behind can be an excellent way to unlock everyone’s potential.
Monica P. Hawkins is CEO of Professional Pipeline Development Group. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.