How to lead from behind

Nelson Mandela is famous for saying these wise words on leadership: “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.”

Although he was referring to a different kind of leadership, this powerful statement is still applicable to managers of today.

The workplace as we know it is being challenged and tested, and rightfully so. As industries change so do the attitudes of the employees that work within them, and the leaders that emerge are those challenging the status quo. Although these changes are needed, it does mean that managers are finding that their ‘blueprint’ for management isn’t landing like it used to and unfortunately the newest version isn’t ready yet.

As employees look for purpose and meaning, the traditional management notion of ‘command and control’ isn’t sticking like it used to and those failing to adapt are going to lose the game. Managers need to realise the impact of their behaviours on their team and adapt if they want to inspire and lead. Take the approach of ‘leading from behind’ from Mandela, by being aware of your position as a manager you can start to make the transition and have greater impact.

Where to start?

The ability to ‘lead from behind’ is not something that you can just do in an instant. It will take time, trust and effort but will have a worthy outcome for your leadership. To be able to create the space to ‘put others up front’ you must have the team's trust in you. Trust is not something that can be ‘hacked’, it must be genuine and sincere, and your team will pick up on whether or not you are. Building trust can start with regular one on one meetings, where you play the role of listener. It is imperative that you get a good understanding of your team's strengths, weaknesses and motivations (to be clear, firstly you should be aware of your own). By understanding what they are good at and where they want to grow this can help you tailor the work to fit their needs wherever possible. 

When starting a project it can be a good idea to get everyone to share their perspective of what ‘good looks like’. This will highlight how each team member views praise. Some ‘just want to get the job done’ others may want to ‘show off’ to another team. We don’t all measure accomplishment in the same way, some love to be on the podium, others like to be behind the scenes, both deserve acknowledgment in a way that will land with them.

As a leader it is key for you to know what those levers are for your team members as this will help you lead from behind by knowing how to put others in front.

Identify the danger

In any work environment each one of us work towards avoiding our ‘worst case scenario’.  This obviously varies by the type of work we do but can be scenarios such as; losing a big sale, missing a deadline, disappointing a stakeholder, letting the team down. Great leaders are clear as to what their teams version of danger looks like. Similar to accomplishments our versions of danger may vary on our personality or the lens we have on the world. Leaders know both the collective ‘team’ danger as well as the individual's version of danger. This allows leaders to know which role they are willing and able to play in the case that those ‘dangers’ were to ever be a reality.

Have you ever had a manager that was nowhere to be seen when things went wrong?

Most of us can relate to feeling ‘in the trenches’, when in those moments, the plan is failing and the team are under pressure, stressed, not sure what to do or where to turn. They are looking for their manager but they are nowhere to be found. They realise that they have been set up to fail and any trust or credibility has been eroded.

Never assume that your collective version of danger is shared with the team. Most people wake up in the morning wanting to do a great job and in order for them to do that you have to give them enough information to succeed. I have often found teams stressing over their collective version of danger when in actual fact they were far from it. When we are stressed we don’t do good work, so as a manager try to mitigate those feelings whenever possible. By understanding your team members you will get an idea of what ‘danger’ means to them. Your regular one to ones will help you keep a finger on the pulse and use a curious approach to get a good idea of what is really going on. Too often teams reach the actual danger point because the signs were not raised earlier on, or they were raised but the manager brushed them aside.  By ‘showing face’ regularly it will allow you to be seen as more approachable and are therefore more likely going to get a clearer picture of reality.

Your role is to help your team navigate away from danger, not to do it for them. Leaders have the awareness of when is the right time to get involved, which battles to fight  and when to give the hard feedback. Your team will appreciate your leadership when they know you have their back. 

Highlight the victory

Can you relate to this scenario: A team works tirelessly at delivering a very challenging project. Nerves are tested, work is done at all hours, management isn’t around and doesn’t witness the commitment to the cause and camaraderie it has built. However, once completed successfully, it is the management team, not the delivery team, that are up at the front clinking bubbles and taking credit.

Unfortunately this story is not uncommon, however the good news is, it can be very simple to avoid.

Firstly, like with danger, start to identify moments within your team ‘when great things happen’ (winning a pitch, launching a product, rolling out a process, etc). Think back in recent history when these moments occurred and what role were you playing.  

Great leaders understand the impact of their behaviours and do what they can to enable their teams to succeed. They know that their role is to set people up to succeed by creating the space for them to thrive, not to fail. They get a sense of purpose and reward from seeing the team do well, not from their own individual accomplishments.

Appreciation can go a long way and it can be as simple as saying ‘thank you’. When your team has done a great job, big or small, each one of the should know, whether that is collectively or individually. Getting recognised for our efforts encourages us to do more and to keep giving 100%. You don’t have to wait for the big project to finish to start celebrating victory. Identify smaller victories along the way and make sure people know about them. It is these small victories that will lead you to the big ones, and will create a sense of collective ownership along the way. 

You have the choice

The ability to lead from behind is not something you can do overnight and it cannot be done without your team’s trust. Invest the time in getting to know your team on both an individual and collective level. Being present, known as a listener and getting involved when you are needed will ensure that you are sending the right messages.

Leading can feel like a self-less task when you fail to make the connection that your returns are based on seeing your team flourish. When you start to make that your goal, your team will notice and start to appreciate your leadership. Leading is all about adapting to others in order to connect with them and it takes constant effort. It is far from taking the ‘easy way’ out but most always worth it as it is easy to ‘manage’ and hard to ‘lead’ but it is always a choice.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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