• Priya Sharma Shaikh

Lesson in leadership - Leading from behind


“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.”

This is how Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, defined the role of a leader.

This goes against the stereotypical image of a leader as seen in popular culture, an alpha male (majority of known examples till now have been, sadly, male), the uber-aggressive warrior who leads from the front.

The role of a leader, has however, been changing over the years. I suspect that the stereotype wasn’t entirely true even back in the day when warriors led our societies. In today’s democratic institutions there seems to be little space and patience for leaders who don’t brook any argument or dissent. Maybe some kinds of organizations (military, start-ups) and some situations (crisis management) still need the ‘strong hand’ approach to leadership but beyond these, it is only leaders who imbibe the ethos of Mandela’s approach who seem capable of leading teams to greatness.

Doing without doing

In knowledge based industries, highly skilled professionals seek autonomy and growth. The role of the leader is now more about building communities that flourish and achieve their goals. This brilliant talk at TED by leading conductor Itay Talgam, shows us different leadership styles from the field of conducting.

Most professionals today are like the musicians playing in these orchestras. They are highly skilled at what they do and have an innate need to express themselves. Most of them have gone beyond the lower level needs on Maslow’s hierarchy and are driven by the need for self-actualization. All of us want to be in the position of Leonard Bernstein, the master conductor at the end of the video, who just stands there moving his eyebrows around as his team goes about creating magic.

Like Talgam says in the video, there are different levels of control. Dictating everything and seeking control at a micro level can easily be seen as a sign of lack of trust in the team’s capabilities.

What is needed is a higher level of control where the team seeks your guidance and is driven by your vision while simultaneously feeling autonomous as they go about their work.

Such employees are more highly motivated and goal oriented. They are not followers anymore but on their way to becoming leaders themselves. That is what the best leaders are supposed to do, create more leaders and not followers.

Leading from behind

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating being laid back and letting things take care of themselves. No, that’s inactivity. The need is to be secure and calm and not worried about every good idea seen as coming from you. That’s not your job. The job is to achieve the goal in as short a time as possible expending as little energy as possible.

Elsewhere in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela explains, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

Much like MSD during the celebrations at Wankhede on that fateful night you say. Exactly! For the uninitiated, I am talking about how the erstwhile captain of the Indian men’s Cricket team, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, conducted himself after his team won the World Cup in 2011. He let the team lap up all the adulation and was happy to remain in the shadows. This, after he’d turned the game around and won the match for his team with a stellar finishing knock.

I for one am a huge one to support empowerment over management and have tried hard to make use of the hidden talents of each of my team members. One key for doing this right, is to know your team well and understand their strengths and weaknesses, train them, hand-hold for a set time and then leave them in the deep to bring out the best they can for the team and themselves.

I learnt this in my first job, where my boss Sagar gave the brief on the product line, took me along for 2-3 meetings, did a test run with a friend of his who acted like a client and then left me to figure out sales. It was brilliant and very liberating for a 20 year old way back in 1985.

In a sense a leader is like a parent to her team. It is important to nurture, guide, mentor, train team members while giving them the space and opportunities to express themselves and grow.

It’s about finding that delicate balance between management and empowerment, keeping the flock together and focused without inhibiting their energies.

That’s no easy task, I know, but whoever said leadership was easy.

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