Leading the Way or Leadership from Behind?

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Leadership by Leading By Example

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Leadership… Almost everyone has heard that you’re supposed to lead from the front or lead by example.

Recently we’ve heard the term ‘leading from behind. What do these concepts actually mean, and how do they relate to leadership?

As an observer of leadership tendencies, you see all kinds of methods or styles being embraced. I believe that this is not an either-or decision, but rather a transitional act from one form to the next as followers become ready.

Leading From the Front

Leading from the front or by example simply means we are demonstrating our leadership by going first.

In many cases, this is accomplished by the leader doing the tough things first to show that they can be done.

It‘s one thing to tell people what to do. It is entirely different when the leader actually shows or demonstrates what needs to be accomplished.

How often do we see leaders, not real leaders, tell followers to do things they themselves would not do?

Many real leaders do not believe in asking their team to do anything they themselves would not do. An attitude such as this can often mean a great deal to team members. However, it can also at times be unrealistic.

Sitting on the Sideline

Sitting on the Sideline

A serious failing that happens to some managers is the inability to delegate.

I have heard this before, “It’s easier for me to just go ahead and do it myself than show them how to do it.”

This begs the question, every time something new or unusual needs to be done, is the leader expected to do it first? This is very unrealistic for larger organizations and can cause a bottleneck in productivity.

There needs to be a transitional phase where leaders move out of the way and let others move forward. This can be scary since, rise or fall, the leader sits on the sideline.

As my youngest daughter is fond of telling me, “Dad I need the freedom to make some mistakes too you know.” It does not mean the leader isn’t there for support.

Leading From Behind

Many leaders need to learn how to lead from behind as well as leading from the front.

Leading from behind sounds a bit confusing and seems a little nebulous. If you ask any number of individuals what leading from behind means, you will likely get a number of different answers.

It can mean, “I’m not going to do it, you do it.”

That probably would end up being a little counterproductive, or at the very least create attitude issues with other team members.

Leading from behind can have real important meaning if utilized properly. When leaders move out of the way and let their team take over real growth can take place.

Great leaders build teams of individuals that can operate on their own in almost any environment. It is often hard for leaders to let go and let someone else sink or swim based upon their actions alone or lack thereof.

If the goal is to build a team of individuals that can be autonomous, solving problems or adapting as necessary to find situations on their own, then the eagles must be made to leave the nest.

Being Uncomfortable with Leading

Being Uncomfortable

There is a story that when parent eagles feel it’s time for the young to leave the nest, the parents will begin removing all of the soft feathers and other soft materials they have built their nest with.

As the baby eagles get bigger and bigger, the comfortable part of the nest becomes smaller and smaller until it is far too small for the young eagles to sit in comfort.

Eventually, they leave and start their own lives.

As leaders, we may have to make our people uncomfortable in order for them to begin to fly on their own and realize that they too can soar like eagles.

This is leading from behind. It is the ability to stand back and let others take the lead. By letting others move to the forefront and experience leadership on their own, they begin to become far more creative and productive.

Things can and do go wrong. However, the end result for these trusted individuals is the ability to start leading the way and is also how leaders multiply themselves.

Charismatic & Entrepreneurial Leadership

Here is another great leadership mantra. Get a charismatic entrepreneurial leader to get things going and keep them running smoothly.

The first danger here to me is that such attempts, more often than not, fail in real-life business.

Just because someone is a charismatic entrepreneurial type of leader, or even that they had success elsewhere, does not guarantee success in the here and now.

How often at the medium to the large-cap level do we see such leaders take on new challenges, with new organizations, only to make things worse?

Visionary Leadership

The other side of the coin is where the leader is irreplaceable.

Look at Apple. When Steve Jobs left earlier in the life cycle of Apple the company stumbled seriously and almost failed. When Jobs came back Apple rose again. However, now that he has passed away what will happen?

What Apple failed to do before Jobs left the first time was to build a stable platform of individuals who were experienced in leadership roles and who could keep things running well without Jobs.

Fearless Leadership

Whether you lead from the front or lead from behind, you need to be a fearless leader.

In the beginning, you will most likely have to lead from the front, demonstrating commitment and a willingness to do what it takes to successfully accomplish the tasks at hand.

At some point, you will need to begin to shift to leading from behind for some individuals.

There must come a time when a leader can and should step out of the way and let the followers take over. Leaders cannot have such a large ego that they never relinquish control.

Very few organizations can grow substantially with such strangled and centralized control. The more decentralized creativity is the more likely productivity is to increase.

Adaptable Leadership

Leadership is more closely identified by both methods over a transitory period of time.

You may begin with leading from the front and then over time, transition to leading from behind. This is how a healthy leadership system should work.

It may be further subdivided into stages that teams, groups, or individuals move through in order to grow to become more creative and productive.

As a leader, one could find themselves in one stage with one group or individual while simultaneously in another different stage with another group or individual.

While one may define leadership accurately on paper, in the real world it needs to be much more fluid and adapted to the particular environment.

How Do You Lead?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Tim Cummuta
Tim Cummuta
Tim is a Business Consultant in Strategic Planning, Productivity, HR, Sales & Marketing, and Risk Management. He has a Master’s Degree in Financial Planning and is pursuing a Ph.D in Organization & Management at Capella University.
  • David McCuistion says:

    Tim:

    This is a great article.

    I would only add the following — if leaders have mentored their leaders with solid ethical values, they will make decision according to your mentoring and values. This makes leading from behind easy to accept and observe. In my Servant Leadership practices, I have followed this procedure with great success.

    Keep the Quest Alive!

  • Dharmen Popat says:

    Great article. Enjoyed reading it.

    The essence of leadership is to influence people and desired outcomes. Being adaptable as a leader is the key to on-going success.

    Would love to discuss – Do great leaders produce great successors?

  • It is amazing how much this concept is lost in translation. I am currently writing about this topic as a final exam for my Business Leadership course. The points you mention here are excellent reminders on how leadership actually works. All too often people recognize the superficial value of leadership by simply standing out front as an example, and avoid seeing the true depth of what leadership qualities are. During discussions about leadership in my class they keep repeating, positivity, humor, delegation, and knowledge as if those examples are the commandments of leadership. Those qualities are essential for personal interaction, and while they are certainly helpful, leadership has a more introspective role of assisting in development of leadership within others by knowing when to step aside.

    “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
    – Lao Tzu

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