LEADING FROM BEHIND

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 06 Mar 2018 12:31:12


 

By indrajeet sirsikar

Imagine a shepherd on top of a hill behind the flock. Not many of us would call this average guy doing his chores, a LEADER. The idea of leadership has been engraved in our minds for decades together as someone who leads a pack, standing in front and taking the first bullet. But picture this again “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind. For now and in coming decades, the most effective leaders will lead from behind, not from the front” —these are the words of Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography, Mandela equated a great leader with a shepherd: It’s a concept whose time has come, given several realities.
This statement is not just very powerful, but relevant as well. In the companies today, where the majority of the workforce is made up of millennials, among other things, people are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives. They want to be valued for who they are and to be able to contribute to something larger than themselves. People expect to have the opportunity to co-author their organisation’s purpose. They want to be associated with organisations that serve as positive forces in the world. In my own company, I hear people talking about not having any purpose and not being satisfied for a long period of time. The problem of having purposeless, de-motivated workforce is rapidly growing across the globe. The only practical solution to this issue is “Leading from behind”. The traditional form of leadership cannot help this cause because traditional leaders are looked at as heroes. But the current generation doesn’t really need heroes to lead them. They need mentors and guide. They need leaders who don’t fly the planes, but let them fly, by playing the role of the ATC.


Most successful innovation is a byproduct of collaborative work involving a diverse group and a collective process of iteration and discovery. Those who are in positions of authority have been taught for years to that it’s their job to come up with the great idea — but sustained innovation comes when everyone has an opportunity to demonstrate a “slice of genius”. Big breakthroughs occur when ordinary people in ordinary situations make extraordinary contributions. Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute, but building communities that can innovate. Of course, leaders do need to act as direction-setters and vision-makers, and we need to prepare them for those roles. But we often emphasise these skills at the expense of others that are growing in importance. If you’re looking for innovation, it doesn’t make much sense to say that the leader’s job is to set the course and mobilise people to follow them there. If you want your team to produce something truly original, you don’t know where you’re going, almost by definition. Steve jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma are all a perfect example of this. The traditional leadership model just doesn’t work in such scenarios.


Leading from behind doesn’t mean that the leaders shy away from their leadership responsibilities. After all, it is the responsibility of the shepherd to ensure that the flock stays together. For the best leaders, it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius. This cannot be done if you are at the forefront of everything. Leaders nowadays need to be with the flock, not ahead.
Shepherd leaders, as we will call them henceforth, must build the organisational capabilities necessary for engaging in the innovation process. The three essential organisational capabilities are: the ability to generate ideas through intellectual discourse and debate; the ability to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit; and the ability to take decisions.
Those who are exceptional at leading from behind are likely to be different than those who excelled at leading from the front. And this raises the question: are we identifying and developing the leaders who can tap the power of collective genius?
What is important to understand is that leadership is not all about the leader. Leadership should rightfully center on the vision to be achieved and the people, the followers, who can actually make it happen. The image of the leader out front heroically showing the way is a romantic idea, but it is not the essence of real leadership and never has been. In reality, the best leaders lead best when they appear to follow. The most effective modern leaders are those who exhibit a penchant for consistently and calmly doing those things that make the most of themselves, their team members and the entirety of the organisation they lead. Leading from behind – which really means putting others out front to achieve the objective – can be a delicate balance of messaging and leadership skills.


I will end with this one word of caution. When leading from behind, be very specific and careful about what vision are you setting for the rest and how they have interpreted the vision. This is very important because in this style of leadership, once you set a goal, you take a back seat and the team takes the center stage. There will not be many instances for revamping the whole process again and again. Hence, be extra careful with setting your vision and explicitly communicating it to the team. Once you are behind, let your team flow. Be the anchor, not the pulley.
(The author can be contacted at
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