Lead from Behind for Leadership Success

Lead from Behind for Leadership Success

- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 15 of 24 -

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Great leaders recognize that their platform was not given to elevate themselves but rather to elevate others. As such, there are two ways of exerting one’s leadership strength: one is commanding and creating followers by leading from the front. The second option is lifting others by leading from behind, a model that creates leaders rather than followers. The premise for leading from behind is that leaders are not given their title and power to command action and to create followers but rather to inspire action and create other leaders. As such, great leaders use their leadership title as an excuse to give others the runway to lead during good times while taking the blame during bad times. As Nelson Mandela noted, “Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.” This does not mean giving up one’s leadership power but rather ensures that one is using their power for the betterment of those they are leading. As Harvard Business School profession Linda A. Hill stated, “Leading from behind doesn’t mean abrogating your leadership responsibilities. After all, the shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off course or into danger. For leaders, it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius.” Accordingly, this article discusses how leaders can leverage their skill set in pulling others up rather than pushing others down by leading from behind.

Leading from Behind in practice
- The Story of the Twelve Ducklings -

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An inspiring story about the journey of 12 ducklings exemplifies the power of leading from behind. I’ve had the privilege of living on a lake for several years. Every spring I see the excitement of new wildlife coming into this world, including many ducklings. Unfortunately, ducklings are very easy prey and as a result, every spring each mother duck will generally begin with 10-12 ducklings only to have, at best, 1-2 survive. Many times none survive. After years of seeing this vicious cycle repeat itself one spring I witnessed a wonderful anomaly. Indeed, one very proud mother duck was out with her freshly hatched 12 ducklings. All mother ducks generally lead from the front with the ducklings following very close behind. Unfortunately, this generally results in large fish, birds, and turtles picking off the rear ducklings. However, I noticed something very different with this mother duck. Instead of leading from the front she was instead leading from behind, allowing her ducklings to lead the way as she kept a close and watchful eye on each of them. I thought this would bring certain leadership chaos and duckling fatalities. To my amazement, everything went extraordinarily well. Indeed, the first week went by and all 12 ducklings were still alive.

This method of leading from behind continued. Week after week went by and all 12 ducklings were alive and well. While typical duckling survival rates range from zero to 25 percent this mother duck did the unthinkable by leading all 12 ducklings to adulthood while additionally introducing 12 strong new leaders to the duck community (see below for further details). Indeed, this was the very first spring I had ever noticed that an entire batch of ducklings grew to adulthood all because this mother duck led from behind. There are three powerful lessons to learn from this analogy, further illustrating the power of leading from behind, namely:

  1. LESSON #1: Enable and inspire action rather than command action
  2. LESSON #2: Don’t create followers but instead create other leaders
  3. LESSON #3: Leave no one behind because we can accomplish anything as long as we move forward together
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Lesson #1
Enable Action - don't Command Action

A leaders main task is to enable action not to command action. As such, this mother duckling exhibited a profound leadership quality – she led from the back while keeping a watchful eye on all those she was leading. Simply, (1) she enabled by nurturing not commanding, (2) she took a step back in order to more clearly see, and (3) she led by not seeking followers but instead lifting others higher. For example, conductors of large orchestras must turn their back to the audience in order to keep a close eye on all the orchestral members. Unfortunately, many leaders turn their back to the orchestra (i.e., employees) and instead look at the audience (i.e., shareholders, board, market, competitors, etc.). Such an approach leads to enterprise carnage, similar to duckling fatalities a mother duck experiences when leading from the front. Instead, great leaders, just as conductors, turn their back to the audience (i.e., the financial results and markets) and keep a close eye on only those they are leading. After all, it’s the performance of the musicians a conductor is leading that brings the applause just as it’s the internal performance of the employees a corporate leader is managing that will drive enterprise results and accompanying profits.

Leading from behind is akin to viewing an impressionist paining. The closer you stand (leading from the front), the less you see because the image appears blurry. Instead, leaders must give trust, take a step back by empowering their team, and move to the rear as this will allow them to inspire and enable action rather than command it.

By leading from the front, leaders can oftentimes get lost in their own ivory tower and lose site of what’s really important, the heart and soul of the business (i.e., the employees). By leading from the back a leader has a full view of what’s transpiring on the ground. To accomplish this lofty goal, leaders must have a willingness to take a step back (i.e., lead from behind). For example, leading from behind is akin to viewing an impressionist paining. The closer you stand (leading from the front), the less you actually see because the image appears blurry. Instead, leaders must be willing to give trust, take a step back by empowering their team, and move to the rear as this will allow them to see the big picture while still being able to course correct quickly. In football terms, rather than being the quarterback who is on the field of play, a great leader must act like the head coach who is close to the action but far enough away to see the bigger picture. Simply, effective leadership is a balancing act between delegating and motivating. As noted, leaders should take notes from this mother duck that cracked the code on not only survival but also successful leadership. Simply, great leaders should lead from behind (i.e., turn their back to the audience) in order to hear and see the big picture while allowing each employee to leverage their own style, technique, and years of training to collaborate together in the best enterprise performance. Simply, visionary leaders inspire and enable action rather than command it. 

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Lesson #2
Don’t create followers - Instead Create Leaders

Leading from behind doesn’t only ensure a more watchful eye on those one is leading but its also creates leaders. It may sound daunting to lead from the back during good times while moving to the front during bad times. However, by using this model leaders create others leaders that will protect, help, and defend during turbulent times. For example, one day this same mother duck was out with her 12 ducklings. At this stage, the ducklings were 3 weeks old and had been learning to lead for only a short time. A predator came to attack and the mother duck immediately moved to the front to take on this attack. However, the predator was too strong for the mother as she was getting easily overpowered. During most such situations ducklings get easily scared and start running or swimming away. This is when significant carnage and chaos can easily happen. However, this situation was far different. Indeed, all 12 ducklings in perfect unison, one right after the other started attacking the predator. They came to the mother’s rescue at an unheard of very early age because leadership qualities had been instilled in them from day one. The power of 13 ducks quickly overcame the predator who shortly flew away and all without any duckling fatality.

Leadership status is not bestowed to ensure followers but rather is intended to create other leaders.

Accordingly, leadership status is not simply made to ensure followers but rather is intended to create other leaders. Indeed, this visionary mother duck had strategically and gently created leaders by empowering her ducklings from birth. Not only did leading from behind allow her to keep a watchful eye on each of them, allowing all twelve to survive, but she also created leaders that had the courage and leadership traits of a duck 10X their age. This amazing mother duck should be an inspiration to many current and aspiring leaders. She turned a very small survival rate into a 100 percent survival rate because she led from behind not from the front. She elevated her ducklings into leadership roles during good times and when any potential predator came she quickly moved to the front and became an exemplary role model that allowed them to become leaders in their own right.

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Lesson #3
Leave No One Behind Because We Can Accomplish Anything as Long as We Move Forward Together

We can accomplish anything as long as we move forward together because together we will always be more powerful.

Within the military, often one of the first lessons taught is that a real leader leaves no one behind. No matter the carnage or risk, leaders ensure those they are leading are never abandoned. Within the corporate world the same noble mentality should follow. Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s rather the survival of the fittest mentality that prevails with many employees being deemed expendable. Indeed, employee turnover has been on the rise in large part due to leadership, not employee inefficiencies. According to Forbes, employee turnover is the highest it's been in 10 years. Furthermore, and according to Wrike, a work management software enterprise, employee turnover costs US companies a staggering $160 billion a year. Simply, not only does high turnover significantly impact the top and bottom line but it also erodes an organization’s culture. As such, leaders must embrace the notion that no one is expendable because everyone, no matter the raw talent or role, adds immense value.

For example, within the story of the twelve ducklings there were several very small, weak ducklings that by nature’s standards would not survive within the motto “survival of the fittest.” However, this mentality never crossed the mind of the mother duck. While most mother ducks lead from the front and would never even notice the rear stragglers perish this mother duck, because she was leading from behind, was in a position to take a different approach. Indeed, when she saw one or several of the weaker ducklings starting to lag behind she gave a gentle nudge. In addition, she would also send a small quack out informing the front duckling leader to slightly slow up so they could stay together. While many may think this leadership mentality sacrificed the strength, speed, and potential of the entire team quite the contrary was the case. Instead, over a period of one week the smaller, weaker ducklings grew as strong as the strongest ducklings. As such, when future predators came they had greater strength to ward off the predators, further maximizing the potential for all twelve ducklings to survive. Indeed, such a mentality illustrates the power in unity and inclusivity, realizing that (1) no one is expandable but rather everyone has immense potential if given the opportunity and (2) together we will always be more powerful. As Henry Ford noted, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Indeed, leading from behind makes such an ambitious goal a reality.

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Leading from behind allows one to keep a watchful eye on the heart and soul of the business while also giving employees the runway to fully unlock their own leadership capabilities. Such a mindset promotes (1) a culture of ownership not compliance, (2) a nurturing versus commanding mindset, and (3) leaders that creates other leaders not followers.

To summarize, a leader is not there to create followers but instead is there to create other leaders. As such, leading from behind allows leaders to keep a watchful eye on the heart and soul of the business while also giving employees the runway to fully unlock their own leadership capabilities. Such a mindset promotes (1) a culture of ownership not compliance, (2) a nurturing versus commanding mindset, and (3) leaders that creates other leaders not followers. As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric noted, “Think of yourself as a gardener, with a watering can in one hand and a can of fertilizer in the other. Occasionally you have to pull some weeds, but most of the time, you just nurture and tend. Then watch everything blossom.” As such, leaders that take care of their people by putting them in a place where they can grow and thrive will see a great harvest of results. As a gardener focuses on drawing out the flower from the seed so too must leaders focus on drawing out the hidden talent in each and every person. Simply, focus on nurturing the seeds in the ground (i.e., lead and empower people from behind) and the crops (i.e., profits) will automatically follow. Remember, a great leader doesn’t create followers but instead creates other leaders. As such, lead from behind and watch profound results transpire.

Read the other best leadership practices HERE.

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24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -

The following article is Part 15 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.

Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).

  1. INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.
  2. EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.
  3. INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them. 

Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.


Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.

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