Leading from Behind

This is not specifically about governance, but it is about achieving something of value for the community.

It is part of our tradition to expect leaders to facilitate directing our energies and resources toward success and achievement. Many people who have no desire to lead are very happy to be led. Often, without someone who is willing to lead, and is capable of leadership, projects simply will not proceed.

It is also part of our tradition that when someone becomes a leader, people who don’t like the personality, or the current strategy, arise as critics. If these critics are capable communicators, they can foment resentments, distractions, confusion, and even revolution. If the critics cannot be managed, or their issues resolved, it is possible for the whole project to fail — regardless of the intrinsic value of the potential results.

One effective strategy for avoiding this trap is for the true leadership to guide the organization without being seen as the leaders. This is called, “leading from behind.”

This article is not meant to be a handbook on how to lead from behind, but simply to show that it is possible, and that it is a strategy that you may choose to employ.

Do you have access to people who value your organization, who are held in very high regard by your community, and who have a proven track record of success in achieving real results? The participation of such people would almost ensure the success of your project. Were you to ask them to be the project leader, they’d be likely to say, “No, thanks, I don’t have the time,” or, “I’ve been there, done that… let someone else lead.” In these cases, would they serve in an advisory position?

Here is how I learned about this strategy. At the time I had a fairly high profile job. A couple of very skilled community organizers approached me to ask me to chair a steering committee for a crucial community event. While I truly supported the cause, I knew nothing about how to run such a major event. “Don’t worry,” I was told, “We will be here to support and help you every step of the way.” And they were. So, I became the titular leader. In the days and months that followed, I provided all of my energies and public enthusiasm to the project. I felt that I could operate with confidence because I had these old hands as daily consultants who would offer advice and, in those cases where I simply was incapable, they’d quietly see that whatever was needed was done. The event was a huge success.

So was I the leader? Technically, I was. In fact, these old hands were deftly guiding me and facilitating the whole process. I call the position I held in this project: The Champion. Was I being manipulated? I never felt controlled — I felt supported. In this case I was grateful to be able to serve, and to have the boundless energy and collaboration of the old hands. Frankly, many of the techniques that I teach as a consultant, I learned during this and similar situations. So, together we accomplished something of value, and I learned lots.

Who received the credit for the success? This issue of recognition can be the place where some projects fail. A frequent reward for leadership is the attention that is focused on the leader. In this case, although I was the titular leader, I’ve defined my role as Champion. As Champion, my main job was to use my access to the media and other community organizations to promote the event. Organizationally, I had to track all of the committees and individual initiatives that were contributing to the project, and ensure that everything was moving forward on schedule. Since I could see what everyone was doing, and I was talking to the public, I could use that to ensure that all of the contributors were receiving recognition for their work. The focus, then, was on the project, and on all of the contributors, and it was not really about me.

The interesting thing was that the people who received the least recognition were those who first approached me, who were the people most responsible for the vision and the strategy for success. At least one of these people was known as a controversial character. If either one had chosen to lead, I think there is a chance that the project would have been mired by dissent. The point is that the project was very successful, the participants loved contributing, and those who lead from behind achieved the results that were needed.

For your project would you, or some of your organizers, be willing to forfeit the trappings of visible leadership to ensure success by leading from behind?

© 2010 R. Ballantyne. All rights reserved. This is for your use at your computer screen. For reproduction of any kind you will need the written permission of the author.

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