The concept of ‘leading from behind’ has been gaining prominence for over a decade. The phrase itself has been borrowed from the autobiography of Nelson Mandela (South Africa’s former president and Nobel Peace Prize awardee), titled “Long Walk to Freedom” and first published in 1994.
In the famous autobiography Nelson Mandela compares a great leader with a shepherd who tends his flock from behind. The shepherd lets the most nimble of the flock to go ahead in search of greener pastures and the rest keep following them, all the while not realizing that they are actually being directed from behind.
The concept of ‘leading from behind’ has been bandied a lot by news media. But the phrase has found its most academic expression by the ideas put forth by Linda Hill, a faculty member of the Harvard Business School. Ms. Hill advances the concept of collaborative effort within the teams which, in turn, is responsible for accomplishing the organization’s projects and goals.
The shepherd does not remain passive when the flock grazes on their own. He keeps himself alert and awake, and constantly keeps an eye over their movement sensing the imminent dangers if any of the sheep stray far away from the flock.
The concept of leading from behind has more relevance today in the context of changing employee-management relations. The employees want their work life to be more meaningful and purposeful. They want to contribute significantly to the organization and expect to be valued for what they do. They want to be increasingly involved in the organizational goals and values. Moreover, the employees of today are more inclined to be associated with organizations that serve positive social purposes.
The employees enjoy participating in new and innovative ideas rather than doing things simply by rote. Most of the innovations have been the results of collaborative work involving diverse groups pursuing a collective process of discovery. This is contrary to the popular notion of great innovations resulting from sudden flashes of creative insights of solitary geniuses, though it may have been true in some exceptional cases. In fact, sustained innovations come to be manifested when everyone gets an opportunity to contribute his or her mite to it. Thus, great breakthroughs happen when apparently ordinary people make extraordinary contributions in a collaborative environment.
Here are some other facets of collaborative leadership that involves leading from behind:
- Cooperative Leadership: The essence of collaborative leadership is cooperation among the members of small, manageable teams. Leading from behind does influence the overall direction of the teamwork, though in an indirect manner.
- Deliberate Leadership: Collaborative effort is not just accidental; underlying the collaborative effort there will always be subtle and calculated direction from the leadership behind.
- Purposeful Leadership: In spite of the team working on its own, the leader constantly infuses the purpose and the intent of the teamwork to all the members in a subtle manner.
- Peacetime Leadership: Collaborative leadership works best in peaceful times when the conditions remain non-threatening and non-urgent.
The traditional idea of leadership does not work if you want to accomplish something original, of which you do not have full idea in advance. Whereas, the leadership from behind sets the vision and the overall direction for the team to move along and discover new vistas.
Leading from behind does not mean completely giving up the leadership responsibilities. It is the shepherd’s responsibility to keep his flock together. The shepherd uses his voice and the staff to nudge and prod his flock, while avoiding all the imminent dangers. Similarly the leaders too have to nudge and prod to harness the collective genius of their teams.