I’ve seen the phrase “leading from behind” a lot. I never knew the derivation, so I did most of us do when curiosity strikes us while surfing the internet – I Googled it. I quickly learned that although many people attributed the phrase to Nelson Mandela, he never actually said it. And there was quite a bit of debate over if it was a positive or negative method of leading.
Jack Dunigan does a good job breaking down what “leading from behind” is and isn’t in this article. But the phrase made me think a bit more about my leadership style, which I’m constantly trying to augment to help my team to move from a place where it functions to a point where each member flourishes.
Anyone who has worked with me will attest that I’m a pretty hands-off leader. I like to give guidance and support, but I think people do best when they figure out their best way to accomplish a task. Now that has worked for some people and not for others, but it is drawn from a premise that there is no one best way to do anything.
Sure, there are faster ways and slower ways. There are cheaper ways and more expensive ways. But there are multiple ways. And I don’t necessarily think I know the best way every time. I know the way I tend to do things, but I also know that there might be a better way that I don’t know.
That’s why I lean more toward a concept of “leading from beside.” When you’re in front of or behind someone, or a group, it’s pretty hard to communicate ideas and hear feedback. Being in front or behind also tends to signify that they power lies with the person who is not a part of the group. I know my team looks to me for leadership, but I try to make it clear that I look to them for input and insight. I also let them know that we are equally vested in mutual success – the success of the company and the success of each individual that supports the company’s success.
I don’t want to be disingenuous here. The fact that I write the checks and make many of the key decisions impacts how the team relates to me as a leader. That’s why it’s particularly important that I affirm the value of everyone’s opinions and feedback in meetings and throughout the week to reinforce the culture of equity.
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