Conventional wisdom tells us that leaders should be in front of the team while leading. We often think of a leader as always being the one in front, leading the way, casting the vision, setting goals and objectives and delivering a plan of action toward achievement. Conceptually, the leader is out in front holding the rope, saying “Grab hold, everyone, and follow me.” It would never work to have the team members holding the rope as the leader tried to push it from behind — you simply cannot push a rope. Well, maybe you can.
I grew up in Midland, Texas. Even in those days it was not uncommon to see a rancher, along with other members of his team, herding cattle. As a boy, I wondered how they got the cows to follow them since the ranchers were actually tucked in behind and to the sides of the herd. They had ropes and sticks in hand, moving their cattle in the direction of greener pastures as the seasons changed.
In the book, “Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life,” by Richard Stengel, Stengel shares 15 life lessons learned from Nelson Mandela compiled after several years of traveling and interviewing him. The fourth lesson, “Lead from the back,” appears to challenge the conventional wisdom of leading from the front. Let’s take a closer look.
What does it actually mean to lead from the back?
As a young boy, Nelson Mandela spent time herding his mother’s cattle, just like the ranchers I saw growing up. Over time, this instilled in him the importance and effectiveness of directing and leading from behind.
Stengel describes this concept using Mandela’s own words, “When you want to get the cattle to move in a certain direction, you stand at the back with a stick, and then you get a few of the cleverer cattle to go to the front and move in the direction that you want them to go. The rest of the cattle follow the few more energetic cattle in the front, but you are really guiding them from the back.”
Mandela has also been quoted as saying, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
In his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he described it this way:
“I always remember the regent’s axiom: 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.”
At the heart of the concept of leading from behind is the empowerment of other team leaders to do portions of the work. Reading this helped me to better understand why the cattle herders positioned themselves behind their herd and why this approach works best in keeping them under control.
In a project management scenario, the leader should embrace the concept of Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM). They do so by delegating various leadership functions to skilled and motivated members of the team. This does not necessarily mean that those leaders are always out in front running the show. They too, like the project manager, will at times move to the front, to the sides and, at times, to the back. The project manager moves to areas that need attention, delegating work to other members of the team, matching people and skills, and then placing them in strategic positions that will better facilitate the work that needs to be accomplished, thus leading from the back.
To lead from the back effectively, a variety of interpersonal skills are necessary. These include:
- Building trust
- Resolving conflict
- Active listening
- Overcoming resistance to change
- Team building
- Decision making
- Political and cultural awareness
A productive leader does not need to be, nor should they seek to be, “in charge” at all times. Doing so simply demonstrates insecurity and areas of vulnerability.
As the leader delegates work to others and things go well, the leader says “Good job, team.” On the other hand, when things are not going as well, the leader says, “It is my responsibility and it is my job to make sure things are done well – no one else’s.” As I have stated in previous posts, if there are issues that need to be addressed with team members, those should be done in private. While in public, always support your team. That does not mean you should ignore the issues. Address the issues and be professional in doing so, but make sure that everyone knows that ultimately the responsibility is on your shoulders.
I believe that a leader should lead from the front, but in reality that can often be accomplished by utilizing the strength of others, getting out of the way, letting them exercise their gifts and giving recognition when it’s due. In other words, leading from the front also means being smart and occasionally leading from behind.