Many see “leading from behind” as a sign of leadership weakness, because they don’t understand that it can be the most effective way to build alliances, create consensus and motivate others to do what the leader wants to be done.
There is a general misconception about the type of aura a leader should exhibit in order to be successful. We have been raised and socialized on certain time-honored images of what leadership should look like. Sifted through eons of history, the standard-bearer of leadership is presented as one who is “out front” and visible. We are encouraged to believe that the best leadership is provided when the leader is in the limelight, the focus of rapt attraction by adoring employees. The theory seems to be: followers can’t follow the leader if the leader is not out there in front leading.
No wonder, then, that museums are wall-to-wall with portraits that depict this quintessential view of leadership. You know, the gallant crusader like Napoleon at St. Bernard Pass astride the supersized charger – rising above the chaos to lead the followers on to vanquish the evil marauding mongrels.
Unfortunately, that vision is the stuff of mythical history, where leaders are often immortalized in a single, dramatic snapshot. Mention Teddy Roosevelt, for example, and your mind reaches for visions of his bravery while leading the Rough Riders in the charge up San Juan Hill. George Washington is often depicted as (foolishly) standing in the bow of a rowboat, leading his army across the Delaware River in the middle of winter. There is the World War II image of Douglas MacArthur wading ashore in the Philippines as if he were the first one to confront and frighten off the Japanese.
I could go on and on citing these time-honored images of the leader always being out front nobly leading the troops, but why? At best, these images reflect romantic myths of leadership that never had any basis in historical fact. At worse, they signify an erroneous view of successful leadership today that lingers in business.
Business Executives as “Out Front” Leaders
Many business executives have procedurally adopted these archaic military symbols in an apparent attempt to demonstrate their “out front” leadership style. The massive corner office, private potty, exclusive dining room, staff of sycophants, stretched limo and corporate jet; all combined with obscene annual income are intended to identify the “leader.” The only thing missing is the steed and flapping flag.
What is important to understand is that leadership is not all about the leader. Leadership should rightfully center on the vision to be achieved and the people, the followers, who can actually make it happen. The image of the leader out front heroically showing the way is a romantic idea, but it is not the essence of real leadership and never has been. Genuine leadership has never been exhibited by a single dramatic episode but rather by an intricate series of actions and events that fuse the followers into a dynamic and focused force that is targeted to achieve the objectives of the leader. And even more important, this dynamic and focused force happens only because the followers have adopted the leader’s goals as worthy objectives.
In reality, the best leaders lead best when they appear to follow. The most effective modern leaders are those who exhibit a penchant for consistently and calmly doing those things that make the most of themselves, their team members and the entirety of the organization they lead.
Being Out Front to Lead From Behind
Leading from behind – which really means putting others out front to achieve the objective – can be a delicate balance of messaging and leadership skills. There is a difference between being behind the change curve and being behind changing the curve. In the former, the leader is left to only react to change ex post facto; the latter brings about change that forces others to react.
President Obama has been roundly criticized as a weak and ineffectual leader because he is depicted as one who is never “out front,” but instead “leads from behind.” Critics who cling to the outdated image of leadership will cite the “Arab Spring,” the Libyan crisis, the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS as examples of Obama being behind the curve, leading to feeble and botched leadership. In the main, those who criticize Obama’s leadership skills have a strong case, but for the wrong reasons. Obama appeared to vacillate as the Arab Spring events unfolded; he gave conflicting signals and made threats he could not back up in the Syrian civil war and after dismissing ISIS as the “junior varsity,” admitted that he had no plan to deal with these terrorists.
Obama’s effort to lead from behind in these foreign crises was full of good intentions, but he failed to implement techniques vital to being successful leading from behind. The real value in leading from behind is that by allowing others to be out front doing what needs to be done and receiving credit for their efforts, followers are motivated to buy-in and work to achieve the objectives of the leader.
The problem for Obama is that he did not clearly articulate a specific vision (if he had one) to confront and resolve these foreign policy issues. As a result, his messaging became muddled, confusing and inconsistent. For a lack of a consistent vision, Obama found himself behind the change curve and forced to react after events had passed him by. Lacking a clear vision to follow, those charged with implementing American policy and allies of America were left befuddled as to what they should do next.
Defenders of Obama will argue that the events were unpredictable and took on a life of their own. That is only partly true, because many had been predicting that the pressure for such upheaval had reached a boiling point; they just couldn’t predict when things would boil over. It was like seeing all the telltale indications of a volcano about to erupt and not having a plan to deal with it when it did. This is not the way to lead from behind.
Learning to Lead From Behind
Leadership is about being out front, but the spotlight should be on accomplishing the vision of the leader, not the accomplishments of the leader. The out-front vision that is clear, focused and staunchly adhered to gives followers a beacon to follow and work toward achieving. Leading from behind comes down to putting others out front and then giving them the vision, encouragement, support and power to accomplish the objective.
The leader as a supernatural demigod out front and hell-bent-for-leather may have been an effective image in the past, but leadership in today’s world calls for a different approach. Effective leadership in the modern world is defined by the appearance of leaders following the followers to achieve a clear vision the leader led the followers to believe was the vision they had created on their own. That is the essence of leading from behind and it is a good lesson to learn for those who seek to be effective leaders – especially President Obama.