Leading From Behind

Updated January 2013

There’s a leadership style that produces sustainable high performance and increased job satisfaction.  It’s a more evolved management style called leading from behind.  Jim Collins uses the term ‘Level 5 Leadership’ as a way to describe one of the key differentiators found among the best companies in his book Good to Great.  He describes the Level 5 Executive as one who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

From Nelson Mandela:  “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.”

What leading from behind looks like

  • We seek to bring out the best in others and enjoy their success from the sidelines.  The follower takes center stage and the leader is part of the applauding crowd.
  • We remove barriers and then step back and let others’ achievements spur them on toward continued success.
  • We create an environment of sustainable high performance that doesn’t stop when the leader steps away because the results are organic and real.

Leading from behind unleashes and magnifies the potential of the team.

It has to be OK to make mistakes

If we’re not letting our people make mistakes, we’re not leading from behind.  It’s not that mistakes are the best way to learn.  The problem with trying to prevent mistakes is that it puts us in a position of hovering and over-managing.  That kind of negative management behaviour teaches people that they have less responsibility and accountability than you might like — and it is certainly not conducive to personal growth or career satisfaction.

Leading from behind is energizing for everyone involved.

Leading from behind doesn’t mean you don’t set expectations

One of the worst management expressions I’ve ever heard – and unfortunately continue to hear – is: “I hire great people and get out of the way.” Nice platitude. Makes the leader sound like anyone would be dying to work for him or her. If that expression had any truth in it at all, we wouldn’t need managers. We’d just hire great people, show them their new workstation, and be on our merry way.

When done well, leading from behind sets the pace required to achieve objectives within the time allotted — all while giving credit to those front-line workers who keep our clients coming back for more.

6 Replies to “Leading From Behind”

  1. I don’t have experience of many organizations so I can’t say.

    But because bosses must reach a consensus when hiring someone, it brings differences in management attitudes to a head.


  2. It extends to hiring people as well.

    If you want to give people their head then you have to believe in them.

    If you want to always be there to sit on them, then you can hire then for their limitations.


  3. I always prided myself on leading from the front, leading by example. Following this definition, it seems I was doing a little of both.
    Thanks for the clarification.


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