Nelson Mandela, famed revolutionary leader and former South African president, wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, the following,
“a leader...is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
We all have a standard picture of strong leadership, but this reads as a sharp contrast. Our vision tends to resemble an alpha personality that strikes out at the forefront with bold initiative and calls the shots for the overall team. But what if our leadership style looks different? Leading from behind is active leadership. It’s leadership that encourages leadership. It’s the leader’s ability to set clear goals, enable innovation, and step forward in key moments to unlock everyone's potential. Here are some key steps in leading from behind:
Work your tail off. Productivity is contagious! One of the most effective ways to lead from behind is to set an example with your work ethic. The popular saying ‘Do as I say, not as I do' doesn’t work for a team trying to accomplish a goal. Leading from behind is collaborative and cooperative. Be a doer.
Make your ‘boss’ look really good. You shouldn’t think of your boss simply as someone above you. Expand that term to include those around you to whom you are accountable. If you’re able to bolster your 360 peer group through hard work and expertise, then you’re driving the team in a subtle manner. Regardless, you’re moving the needle. Don’t forget that sometimes, leadership is simply removing obstacles in front of others helping them to have the runway to soar!
Stop asking about a promotion. We all want to be recognized for our work. That’s natural and nothing to be ashamed of. But if you’re focusing on the next accolade or promotion, then you’re missing the more important objective of the team. When you put rewards at the forefront, it distracts you from doing your best work and making those around you look good. If you can help enough people get what they want, then you’ll eventually get what you want. Maintain the course.
Think of yourself as a leader. Everybody is in the back of the pack at some point for some reason. If you can think of yourself as a leader in the context of your current position, then it allows you to take ownership of the mission or project. Each problem that arises becomes an opportunity for you to show value by anticipating or engaging it head-on. Regardless of where you are on a team, you can always take ownership of an issue or problem and not view it as someone else’s responsibility. Though often underrated, this is a form of good leadership.
Like the shepherds who steer their flocks from behind, you have the opportunity to lead your team by applying these principles. Nelson Mandela says, “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.”
Leadership can come in many forms. And sometimes, it’s coming from behind.