Leading from Behind

I’ve heard this term a lot recently, especially in business settings, because there is a need to let employees innovate and take charge of their own destinies while keeping in mind the bottom line. When you think about it, revolutions start behind closed doors, after many dissenting voices get organized from the back of the room. The panorama from the back allows you to scan the room’s reactions gleaning quickly who is on board, who is not and who may not have made up their minds about the effectiveness of the leaders in front of them.

The Harvard Business Review explored this concept in a 2010 article and it has picked up steam since then. Think Wozniak and Jobs, Sam and Frodo (Lord of the Rings) or Riker and Picard. Every leader in the front had a right hand man and go to second in command under their wing. They worked as a unit, playing off each other’s strengths and correcting for their collective weaknesses. If the second in command or leader in the back of the pack decided it was time to mutiny or override the leader they could easily topple the balance of power. Success depended on their tandem efforts, thus making them just as important and crucial in the team dynamics and decision making processes.

Contrary to popular belief, a team doesn’t need a leader to thrive; all it needs is an idea that fuels the passions of the individuals comprising the group. This common good or desire drives progress and action. Unless discord, competition or petty differences take over, there will be no need to have a sole source of guidance and decision making. This is why the leader in the back must communicate with the leader in the front to keep the group engaged and focused. At every step or decision, an inherent leader will emerge. We all have strengths that force us to act in a particular manner and when our natural areas of expertise are called into action. Once the team is well established anyone can lead with confidence, via influence or clout, without having to take the responsibility of success and defeat squarely on their shoulders. It levels the burden and gives participants room to step back and address their positions from a vantage point and less pressure.

Sometimes leading from a back up or unofficial position ensures that what you say or plan comes to pass because people trust you and believe you can get things done. You are not seen as a glory hog or as someone with an agenda to fulfil. One can choose to disrupt or enhance collaboration from a privileged position, devoid of the pressures to deliver and unencumbered by performance expectations. Much like the scientific method, you are there to empirically experiment with the parameters that make the project or effort a success without the risk of failure; failure is a learning mechanism that makes the team stronger, resilient and adaptive.

For the last couple of years, I have leaned into the role of leading from behind. As an introvert who had to embrace and endure the fallout of other people’s choices and nature’s cruelty, this idea of moving the pack from a place of limited influence and accountability made it waaay easier to mitigate or affect conflict. The pseudo anonymity or rather relaxed leadership status enables me to see the entire landscape of the room, gauging synergy and collaboration to counter authoritarian/commanding or pacesetting styles and prerogatives. I can focus on the people and their reactions rather than concentrate in their performance alone. I manage the living and breathing organism we become as we attack the problems and tasks at hand as a unit.

When things start to fall apart, are overlooked or tensions rise, I am emotionally invested in diffusing the situation and not in preserving a stance or protecting a bottom line. The flexibility of adjusting to the environment and what is needed to succeed helps my team get the Win-Win. It is not about protecting my ego or my reputation but rather about building the team and our foreperson up and across silos. The better we all look in regards to delivering results, the better we all feel and actually add value. I am the last one to cross the finish line after everyone else is thoroughly accounted for heart, mind and soul. There is no I in team or in the word leader. I fully acknowledge you cannot make things happen on your own regardless of how appearances may deceive you.

Even Tesla, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century had investors like JP Morgan backing him up. Choose your allies and enemies wisely…

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