Leading From Behind

Guest Post by Andrew Cravenho

When we hear the phrase “leading from behind” we tend to associate it with political strategies and the double-speak so ubiquitous from the political class. Generally that is accurate.

The concept of leading from behind was practiced by one of the great political figures of our time, Nelson Mandela. In his 1995 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he famously compared leaders to shepherds. In the book, Mandela points out that the shepherd is always behind the flock. Although some precocious sheep in the flock will forge ahead and be followed by others, the actual leadership role is the shepherd’s because he oversees the flock.

Traditional business organizational structures follow Dwight D. Eisenhower’s leadership philosophy best explained in this quote from the 34th President of the United States:

“Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.”

The difference between leading from behind and leading from the front is like the difference between automobiles with front wheel drive and those with rear wheel drive. Both drive trains will get you from point “A” to point “B.” However, driving conditions may create a preference for one over the other. For example, front wheel drive automobiles are superior in performance on slippery surfaces such as snow and ice while rear wheel drive automobiles offer better handling when cornering and sport superior braking response.

Defining Lead from Behind

Leading from behind is certainly not a new concept. It has been practiced in the political arena by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela with great success. The “lead from behind” concept of business management aligns with the decades-old concept of servant leadership which Robert K. Greenleaf proposed in his book, The Servant as Leader, published in 1970.

Building on this concept and, in many respects, redefining it as “leading from behind” can be largely credited to theories advanced by Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill.

To lead from behind is quite the antithesis of our traditional view of leadership. Unlike the image of the General leading his troops into battle or the CEO on stage giving an inspirational speech, one who leads from behind conjures an image akin to a quarterback leading his team to victory.

As Professor Hill suggests, the increased interdependency of businesses demands that leaders bring collaborative skills to bear. A small business owner or entrepreneur establishing partnerships is well-served by a lead from behind management style. It advocates generously sharing power. Moreover, it promotes collaboration within teams.

A lead from behind management style mandates that the leader withdraw from center stage. By doing so, the leader empowers and inspires others to become stakeholders in the business’ goals and, the potential for innovation is unleashed. Additionally, by allowing subordinates the opportunity to execute, make mistakes and learn to make decisions, you are continually grooming new leadership talent. This empowerment fosters sustainability that reduces succession concerns, particularly for small businesses.

Examples of Leadership from Behind

Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, Howard Behar of Starbucks and Earl Bakken of Medtronic are examples of individuals that led their companies from behind, although the term hadn’t yet been coined. These men all had the character, vision and selflessness to inspire.

Some Observations

Income inequality represents a growing concern in the United States and around the globe. In much the same way, business management structures are increasingly under fire because employees feel powerless. Clearly society is maturing, and everyone desires a larger role. Not only do people seek larger financial rewards, but they also seek a greater say in the direction of their career paths.

The time has arrived for a serious debate on the merits of the lead from behind concept. Advances in social technology are already shifting the balance of power in favor of the masses. This shift places demands on governments to address the issue of income inequality and also on the business side of the equation with demands for greater responsibility in shaping the direction of businesses. Intelligent, forward-looking leaders can leverage social media for the benefit of their organizations.

A lead from behind management approach addresses the business side of the equation in a way that is conducive to meeting the employees’ desires and furthering the goals of the enterprise. In short, lead from behind is a management alternative whose time has come.

Guest Post

Andrew Cravenho is the CEO of CBAC, which offers invoice factoring for small businesses. As a serial entrepreneur, Andrew focuses on helping both small and midsize businesses take control of their cash flow