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The Art of Leading from Behind

The idea of leading from behind originates from Linda Hill from the Harvard Business School after reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom. In the book, Mandela likened great leaders to shepherds, who when travelling, remain at the back, allowing the strongest sheep to walk at the front, while ensuring that none of the sheep stray too far from the group.

Her observation is the theory that effective teams are ones that are collaborative and allow all members equal opportunity to contribute.

What Is It?

To use another animal analogy, at some point, you may have seen an image floating around on social media of a long line of wolves, travelling towards their destination. The image explains that the sickest or weakest wolves lead the front of the pack, with a few stronger wolves behind them. Then there are other wolves directly in the middle with varying degrees of strength, followed by more of the strongest wolves of the pack, and finally the leader taking the rear. Whether or not this is actually what the wolves were doing is irrelevant, as it’s a very effective image to demonstrate how to lead from behind.

This analogy demonstrates that it’s the job of the leader to ensure that no one gets left behind. They can see everything that is going on and have properly delegated tasks to other members of the pack to ensure that everyone is supported. The slowest or weakest set the pace, so everyone is on the same page, and everyone has a chance to flourish without being forced to constantly play catch-up with those in front of them, or risk being abandoned entirely.

How this translates to business is that leading from behind seeks to empower others and encourage collaboration and innovation. It creates a more welcoming atmosphere for everyone at the company, and most importantly, builds trust and prioritizes the accomplishments of the collective. Those who want to lead are encouraged to do so and receive the right supports, but diversity in thinking and career goals is also valued. This is not simply about creating more leaders among your employees, it’s about understanding that everyone’s strengths, whether they have the desire to lead or not, contribute to the success of the whole.

When someone leads from behind, they have a better understanding of how members of the team are performing so leaders can offer better, more effective guidance, and recognizes that there are no weakest links, only opportunities for growth. 

This type of leadership is often mistaken for passive or total hands-off leadership, both of which are myths. This is still a form of active leadership and requires leaders to craft a clear vision to avoid teams from becoming directionless. The company still requires structure, and leaders must set clear goals, expectations, and guidelines in order for all initiatives to succeed.

How To Use It

Leading from behind is most effective when a company is not in a place of crisis. This allows employees to make mistakes and gives them time to grow and flourish into their roles. It also gives time for experimentation and innovation, and leaders can overlook how operations are running on a timeline that works best for everyone.

When crisis happens, leaders need to be prepared to lead from the front, meaning putting yourself on the front lines, and often doing the tough things first. If something needs getting done urgently and there are high consequences, there is no time to let the collective come to a decision. Take the reigns and lead from the front.

Qualities of an Effective Leader 

To adopt this strategy, leaders need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses so they can properly delegate tasks and build trust. This includes the ability to identify the strengths of all team members, not just the loudest team members. Often the quiet ones get left behind or are told to figure things out for themselves, when louder team members are given proper guidance.

This also requires strong communication, empathy and attentive listening skills, as leading from behind means understanding the needs of the collective, and the ability to identify areas of improvement.

Lauren Schwartz | Staff Writer

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