Eight ways to lead effectively from the back
People often talk about leading from the front. In fact it is probably the best known and certainly the most visible form of leadership. In my mind, the classic image of leading from the front is the First World War, where soldiers would leap up out of their trenches and charge across battlefields to engage the enemy in acts of extraordinary courage and astonishing bravery.
But what about leading from the back ie: leading through others? Are there ever times when it is helpful for a leader to be less visible or even invisible? Yes, very much so. Indeed, leading from the back is the only viable way to facilitate the empowerment of people. It simply cannot be achieved any other way.
So how and when does leading from the back work and what are the conditions under which such an arrangement might achieve a successful outcome. Set out below are the eight ways to lead effectively from the back.
1. Give people permission to act — the importance of permission to act is that it creates a controlled environment and sets the boundary and context within which activity can be planned, conducted and sanctioned. The alternative to boundaries is unstructured activity, rules made up on the hoof and lack of accountability. When leading from the back, boundaries are especially important because those whom you empower must clearly understand the authority with which they have to act and the point at which authority for further action must be sought.
2. Give people permission to fail — one of the hardest things to do in leadership is to accept your own failure, how much more to be accountable for the failure of others. Yet, you simply cannot lead effectively from the back unless you accept that you must empower others with permission to fail. Let’s be real here, if you give people the permission to act on your behalf, you must also give them permission to fail on your behalf. As long as those whom you empower operate within the delegated permission to act, you must be prepared to accept the consequences of their actions.
3. Deploy visible invisibility — the essence of leading from the back is that you are leading through others and therefore whilst you are not physically in the room, you are none-the-less present through those who represent and are accountable to you. The measure of a truly great leader is that their presence is felt even when they are not physically there. To lead from the back, you cannot be physically present otherwise once people catch sight of you, they will defer to you, which is undermining of those whose leadership capabilities you are trying to develop.
4. Give people the freedom to think — few things are as disempowering as repressing peoples freedom to think and express their views. Clearly there are limitations to this and I am not referring to those who use their freedoms to act outside established norms of behaviour and practice. Rather, I am referring to the value placed on involving people in the decision-making process that empowers them to think for themselves and solve their own problems. To lead from the back, you must accept that you do not know all the answers. By doing so you will cultivate collective accountability and enable to find solutions whether or not you are in the room.
5. Trust yourself to trust others — like any arrangement involving people, successfully leading from the back must be based on trust. Without trust, permission to act or fail cannot be granted, boundaries cannot be established and people cannot be enabled to demonstrate their leadership capabilities. In my experience trust is a push and pull, in that it must be earned as well as extended. Asking people to take on roles for which they are unsuited is an abuse of trust. However, a good leader who knows the capabilities of their people, ought to be able to create the right environment for potential leaders to step forward.
6. Motivate effectively — there will undoubtedly be times when those who represent you are not performing well or complacency sets in or any one of a number of other issues occur that require urgent attention. At such times, you need to have a range of motivational tools to deploy. I have often found that to generate energy and enthusiasm you must find out what motivates people (and each person may be different). For some it may be your ability to spot the positives in a sea of negatives and for others it may be the reassurance that you will step forward and take responsibility if things go wrong. However, if all else fails you must be ready to deploy tough love and strong words.
7. Do not be threatened by the success of others — this is a very serious point. I have known leaders who choose not to empower others into leadership for fear that they may be recognised and rewards for their efforts. Here’s the rub, petty jealousy kills leadership development. Furthermore, anyone in such a position, who holds those kinds of views should seriously question whether they have chosen the right vocation. It bears reminding that the role and purpose of leadership is not lordship, it is service — specifically the empowerment of others.
8. Maintain standards — in every endeavour where there is a stated objective, there must also be some way of describing or defining what success looks like. In other words what sort of behaviours do you want to see demonstrated, how long do you want to be hand-holding before those who you are seeking to empower, take off on their own? As I often say, if you do not know what success looks like you will not know it when you see it, nor will you be able to use knowledge gained from it to develop capabilities and maintain standards.
If your goal is to empower your organisation, achieve culture change and deliver sustainable results, then leading from the back is the way to do it. In simple terms, you achieve sustainability not through your own efforts but rather through the efforts of others. Therefore any organisational design and development strategy that doesn’t have the empowerment of people at its heart, is probably destined for the dusty top shelf, just like its predecessors.