Lead from behind for team success

Recently I re-read an article I stumbled across years ago on this leadership blog, espousing the value of leaders who lead from behind. It stuck with me, so I wanted to share it here.

Duckling - did his mother lead from behind?
Photo by Kerin Gedge on Unsplash

The author lived near a lake and would often watch mother ducks and their ducklings in the spring. Each spring, they noticed that most mother ducks would swim out front and let their ducklings follow closely behind them. They led from the front.

One mother duck, however, allowed her ducklings to swim in front of her. She stayed in the back, keeping a watchful eye on all her babies and directing them or coming forward to protect when needed.

He noticed that the ducklings that were led from the front were more likely to be picked off by predators — the mother wasn’t able to keep an eye on all her charges and wasn’t able to adapt to let a slower duckling catch up or to spot a sneaky predator looking to steal a straggler. The ducklings also didn’t learn to defend themselves or to chart their own paths, reliant as they were on their mother to guide them.

The ducklings that were led from behind grew stronger and more confident more quickly than their peers. The mother was able to keep an eye on all her babies, thereby more effectively adapting the speed of the group to keep them all together. When attacked by predators, she was able to swim to the front to protect them and, having gained confidence and strength by forging their own path ahead, the babies would help the mother to fight off stronger predators. This mother kept all her ducklings. Most kept 2 or 3.

What do ducks have to do with leadership?

Nothing. But also quite a bit.

These mother ducks are leading their babies. They are trying to teach them to make good decisions and to someday lead others themselves. Leaders within organizations have a similar task.

You are given a team (or you create one) full of individuals and you need to lead those individuals to achieve shared goals. Some of your team members will be strong and others will need support. Some will fall behind if you’re not watching closely. Sometimes you’ll need to band together against an external threat — falling sales, a department looking to poach your resources, or a tight deadline.

If, as the leader, you’re simply walking out front, forging the path, you’ll lose sight of your team. You won’t get the benefits of their full abilities and insights or else you’ll lose team members because they can’t keep up or because they get wooed by other employers who come by when your attention is elsewhere. Your team also becomes reliant on your direction and unable to make confident decisions on their own.

By leading from behind, however, your team gets the same benefits as those little ducklings. They learn to be leaders, to make good decisions, and to protect each other. You can see if someone is struggling and make the right choices to support them. Your team becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

“A leader. . .is like a shepherd. [They] stay behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Nelson Mandela

So what does it look like to lead from behind?

It can look different for each of us. I see three key behaviours of leaders who empower their teams and lead from the back.

1. Provide information and allow team members to make decisions.

Rather than always telling your team what to do, explain to them why you make the decisions that you make. This allows the smart people you’ve hired to understand what is important and extrapolate your thinking process onto new situations. Before you know it, your people will be making the decisions you would have made and you’ll have created new leaders as well as lightened your own workload.

2. Give people an opportunity to stand in the limelight.

Find opportunities for your people to present their own ideas or to present the work of the group to leadership. Be there to support them, of course, but let them prepare and present themselves. This allows them to think more deeply about the work that they’re doing and gives them a greater sense of ownership for the team’s deliverables.

Like the mother duck, though, be prepared to step forward to defend if needed. Let your people absorb the praise and shelter them from the criticisms. As leader, you still own the results of your team and ’empowering others’ is not an invitation to avoid your own accountabilities.

3. Understand your team members.

The most important thing for a leader is to have a keen understanding of the skills, abilities, and interests of their team members. By leading from behind, you can watch them all perform. This allows you to identify who is solid at presenting and who is great with customers. By regularly having open conversations with your team, you can figure out who wants to develop and who is happy where they are. You can then tailor the opportunities you offer to them accordingly.

Someone who is fabulous at presenting and would like to get promoted one day will be inspired by the opportunity to present the team’s results to executive. Someone who hates presenting and loves their current role as a developer may find that opportunity disengaging. If you’re not watching and listening, though, you’ll never know why your development opportunities aren’t having their desired effect.

How do you lead your teams? Do you lead from the front or from behind?

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2 thoughts on “Lead from behind for team success

  1. Great analysis! This seems like the perfect way to approach leading an effective team!

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