I got the [leading from behind] idea from reading Nelson Mandela. I was reading his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom…and I came across a passage in which Mandela recalls how a leader of his tribe talked about leadership:
“A leader, he said, is like 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.”
To me, this take on the shepherd image embodies the kind of leader we increasingly need: someone who understands how to create a context or culture in which other people are willing and able to lead. This image of the shepherd behind his flock is an acknowledgment that leadership is a collective activity in which different people at different times—depending on their strengths, or “nimbleness”—come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go. The metaphor also hints at the agility of a group that doesn’t have to wait for and then respond to a command from the front. That kind of agility is more likely to be developed by a group when a leader conceives of her role as creating the opportunity for collective leadership, as opposed to merely setting direction.
I probably should emphasize that leading from behind is not about abrogating responsibility. 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 the track or into danger. In fact, leading from behind is hard work and involves some crucial responsibilities and judgment calls: deciding who’s in (and, just as important, who’s not in) the group; articulating the values that will inform the group; developing the talents of members so that they can flourish in their roles; setting boundaries for the group’s activities; and managing the tensions inherent in group life—deciding, for example, when to be supportive and when to be confrontational, when to improvise and when to impose a structure.
But keep in mind that leading from behind doesn’t imply that everyone in the organization has equal talent or the right to lead at a given time. Talent—or nimbleness, if you will—is actually a function of context, which means that different individuals will come to the fore in different situations.
It’s also crucial to understand that leading from behind isn’t a style reserved for the uninspiring or the indecisive. Many people who lead from behind are perfectly capable of leading from the front.
Clearly, many situations require leadership from the front. In crises, for example, an organization needs to react quickly, but if the people in it have not been prepared to do so collectively, a leader needs to step forward and tell them where they are going and how to get there.
The more you want to get the best out of a group by letting people use their own judgment and take risks, the more you want to lead from behind.