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Leading from behind: How and why it works

What does leading from behind mean?

People interested in leadership have probably heard or seen the phrase “leading from behind”. It’s the idea that leaders don’t guide a group of people, a team, a company, etc. from the front, in the traditional top-down management hierarchy. Instead, they lead from the rear, like a shepherd tending to a flock. 

To many folks, this concept may seem—like many suddenly popular team leading ideas—as if it came out of nowhere. “Leading from behind” experienced a major cultural bump in 2011, when New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote that an Obama administration official had described the president's foreign policy as “leading from behind”. The truth, however, is that the notion of leading from behind has a far more interesting history. 

Though the words “leading from behind” may not be spoken explicitly at companies, one can see its influence in modern tech companies. Google is well-known for its management style, in which employees across various teams are encouraged to express ideas, thereby fostering a quick and nimble type of innovation pipeline. 

Below, we will get into the history of leading from behind. We will also explain how and why it works. 

Origin Story

Everyone knows Nelson Mandela as a South African freedom fighter and, after many years of imprisonment, the first black leader of his home country. For these reasons alone, Mandela is iconic both at home and abroad. But, his style of leadership, which he spoke about often, has many practical lessons for the rest of the world. One of those practical lessons was the idea of leading from behind. 

In his fantastic autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela likened a successful leader to 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.” 

Sure, everyone knows how a shepherd directs a flock of sheep, but what does this mean for the multitude of teams, organizations, and companies out there in the world?

Writing in 2014, Omar Mohammed—at the time, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication—elaborated on Lizza’s brief mention of “leading from behind”. 

“Both Mr. Mandela and Mr. Obama appear to believe that in order to get the results (s)he wants, a leader has to make sure that everyone buys into the vision of what they are trying to achieve.  At the core of this idea seems to be the abdication of one’s ego for the good of the collective. It is also the kind of leadership that is more concerned about accomplishments of the group rather than the elevation of personal and individual glory.”

What does “leading from behind” look like?

Even if we think of a company and its leader as a flock and shepherd, we should refine what this means, as well as what it looks like in practice. A company could interpret this however they like, depending on how they want their business to operate, but here is a basic framework of leading from behind. 

Organizations and companies can be viewed as a space for collective leadership. Not in the sense of a co-op as equal business ownership, but in the sense that any member, if willing and able, can help chart a course for a company or organization. Naturally, a business founder or management team will need to encourage this type of spontaneous quality for it to take root and bloom. 

A company or organization that encourages leadership from behind would see different people at different times coming forward to take the team in the direction(s) it needs to go. A new direction might be something like exploring novel ideas or markets, or even taking the lead on creating a fun work environment instead of one known for drudgery. 

Harvard Business professor Linda Hill emphasizes that leading from behind is not equivalent to a leader bowing out of their leadership position, and instituting mob rule. Instead, she calls it the “harnessing” of people’s “collective genius”. 

“Leading from behind doesn’t mean abrogating your leadership responsibilities,” writes Hill in the Harvard Business Review. “After all, the shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off course or into danger. For leaders, it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius. Doing so entails two primary responsibilities — and they are not easy to get right.”

The first is that a leader will encourage their flock to innovate. Secondly, to innovate, a leader will encourage team members to first generate, then share and refine their idea with the team. And, ultimately, they will integrate the idea into the company’s framework.

Why leading from behind?

There are a number of reasons that this management style can prove effective—some more obvious than others. 

Team members want more input

It’s a human instinct for team members to desire input or “say” in how a company or other organization operates and evolves. This is natural. In the past, rigid work hierarchies were cultivated by management. Management issued directives in a top-down manner, even though they didn’t actively prohibit or discourage non-management team members from speaking up. 

In a recent blog post on fostering teamwork, the Australian Institute of Business suggested that companies and organizations should “flatten the team hierarchy”. 

“At startup publishing company Medium, one of the key tenets has been to distribute decision-making power and discourage consensus seeking,” the Australian Institute of Business writes. “Their approach meant that even the newest intern could feel comfortable taking an idea to the CEO and ideas flowed freely throughout the company.”
“Your company may have a more formal hierarchy, but consider flattening that out within your own team,” the institute added. “As a manager, keep an open door, emphasise collaboration and make sure everyone feels as if they’re in it together. As well as fostering innovation, you’ll promote engagement within your team, ensuring that everyone does their best.”

Harvard Business’s Linda Hill says this approach works because the traditional “psychological contract” between companies and employees is changing. 

“Among other things, people are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives,” Hill notes. “They want and increasingly expect 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 organization’s purpose. They want to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world.”

More ideas, more innovation

Companies led from behind are both nimble and agile. And they are nimble and agile because team members are encouraged to generate and share innovative ideas. 

This type of leadership shouldn’t be mistaken for a style that encourages even more input from those individuals who are already assertive and offering their ideas. Every team, organization, and company has assertive people. In a company led from behind, anyone at the company with a good idea is encouraged to articulate and share it. 

An inclusive, led from behind team would look for those individuals who are typically  silent, soft-spoken, or generally uneager to speak up. Hill encourages companies and teams to not overlook these people. 

In a Harvard Business Review interview, Hill referred to these folks as “stylistic invisibles” because they “don't exhibit the take-charge, direction-setting behavior we often think of as inherent in leadership, they are overlooked when an organization selects the people it believes have leadership potential.”

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As we can now see, “leading from behind” as a clear concept and team-building technique (or approach) has its origins in Nelson Mandela’s experience in freedom fighting. And since Mandelia articulated it, leading from behind has also become a viable doctrine for other politicians. 

But the lessons from “leading from behind” are many for businesses, organizations, and other groups looking to optimize their talent and ideas. Remember, even interns at the Silicon Valley company Medium can feel comfortable approaching the company’s CEO with an idea. What this tells us is that leading from behind can be an engine for innovation. 

Ultimately, leading from behind is about creating a vision that team members can buy into. Instead of top-down management, this management style elevates the collective over hierarchy. It encourages all team members—not just the most assertive ones—to come up with ideas that will help a company or organization innovate, evolve, and flourish well into the future. 

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