Leading from Behind

By | September 7, 2013

[September 7, 2013]  In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, he uses a metaphor to illustrate the leading from behind leadership style. He writes, quoting a regent’s axiom:

“… a leader … is like a Sheppard. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing all along they are being directed from behind.”

No leader exclusively uses any one type of leadership style.  In the study of leadership, this is one takeaway we should not forget.

President Obama recently brought to our attention the “Leading from Behind” leadership style.  Regardless of the positive or negative connotations we attach to it, there is significant and justified confusion over what this style actually represents.  Although we can trace this form of leadership back to millennia, it is historically a legitimate and successful form of leadership.

There is a thought that the “leading from behind” leadership method is similar to psychologist Kurt Lewin’s Laissez-Faire (or Delegative) leadership style.  This hands-off leadership approach best suites organizations that are stable and that must emphasize motivated, creative, and independent-thinking workers.  The question for us is whether this style fits senior executive leaders.

Critics of President Obama claim the reality of American politics is anything but stable and any leadership style under that condition should be far more aggressive, leading from a highly visible position – projecting strength, conviction, trust, and confidence.  They argue that it is difficult to project strength when leading from behind if for no other reason than the leader is less visible.

In reality, when analyzed, President Obama uses more than one leadership style and rightly so.  He uses more than the leading from behind method and why he chose to highlight this particular style is a bit confusing.  It would be equally difficult for a sitting U.S. President to use, or worse to claim to use, an autocratic form of leadership.  The criticism would likewise be strong.

A senior executive leader should, and clearly do, use more than one leadership approach.  Lewin’s Authoritarian (autocratic) or Participative (democratic) leadership style, or more productively some combination thereof, are also successful methodologies.  A combination of Authoritarian and Participative leadership styles are employed more commonly in large, growing, or highly competitive organizations or in those that have a very high visibility.

Yet the ultimate test of leadership is whether or not that person is successful in achieving their vision and in carrying out the organization’s mission.

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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.