Posted On June 15, 2014

It’s true there are times when a charismatic leader like William Wallace or Boudicca is needed at the head of the pack but let’s face it, those times are relatively few and often the product of a Hollywood imagination.

Almost counter-intuitively, the best leadership may be leadership from behind.

Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders the world’s ever seen, said a great commander is like a shepherd: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Mandela’s shepherd does not abrogate responsibility, rather he/she exercises the higher responsibility of ensuring the flock stays together and moves in the right direction.

More and more, a premium is being placed on that type of stewardship—the ability to take a back seat so that people move forward, assume responsibility and actively participate in a shared vision.

The phrase “leading from behind,” first coined in Mandela’s 1995 biography Long Walk to Freedom, has become a buzz term of modern management strategy. Harvard Business School, for example, says in coming decades more and more leaders will lead in this manner, building corporate cultures that nourish innovation and develop emerging leaders. Described by some as daily leadership, it’s a strategy of seeing the bigger picture, studying and preparing your team, and determining the next steps, all from the best-possible vantage point.

Leaders set the course and let others steer the ship, as the saying goes. In other words, leaders may develop the vision and strategy but it’s employees who actually make things happen.

It’s the leaders’ greatest challenge: to ensure the team is made up of the right people in the right roles and with the right skills, information and autonomy to execute on the vision and ideas of the organisation. It’s about empowering and inspiring others and, ideally, tapping the considerable power (and competitive advantage) of collective knowledge and energy. This strategy also supports the process of succession planning, giving team members the opportunity to step up and take the lead—a kind of rehearsal for one day sitting in the big chair.

True, it can be tough for a leader not to be seen taking charge at every opportunity. After all, ego can be a dirty word. And none of this is to suggest a great leader isn’t needed in the thick of the action. Timing, however, is everything, and again in the words of Nelson Mandela, “You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

(There’s also a strong case to be made for leading beside people—after all, that’s where true mentoring and coaching protégés is done. And when adopting that leadership style the whole team crosses the finish line at the same time—but that’s a topic for another day.)

Leading from behind is focused on creating more leaders, not followers. It’s a strategy that runs contrary to the cult of personality and isn’t exactly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

What it is, however, is a sound approach to leadership in the real world.

If you’d like to learn more about modern leadership and the skills you’ll need to get, and stay, ahead, check out our leadership training courses.