Leading From Behind

The death of Nelson Mandela has triggered international recognition that he was a singularly remarkable man. In leading the movement to end apartheid in South Africa, Mandela attracted accolades not only for what he accomplished, but how he did it. He successfully transformed a notoriously racist whites-only government into a multi-racial democracy – with virtually no violence. This was a revolution without bloodshed, characterized by its tone of reconciliation, rather than revenge.

What was behind Mandela’s success? Obviously, he was a man of tremendous intelligence and high character. Clearly, he had an unwavering understanding that South Africa’s future depended on transcending strict racial, ethnic, tribal, and religious identities. But I’m convinced that much of his success derived from his understanding of leadership, something he arrived at as a boy.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela describes growing up in his small South African village. He was a member of the tribal royalty, and as such he was able to observe up close how the elders of his village would make their decisions. The tribal council would work endlessly toward consensus, and Mandela realized that the chief himself made very few comments during the deliberations.

The chief, Mandela wrote, was acting like a shepherd. “He stays 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.”

That, to me, defines effective leadership, whether of a nation, a company, a sports team, a family, or a nonprofit organization. When people have ownership, when they feel they are charting their own path, when they take pride in their accomplishments, when they receive recognition and respect, and when they are involved in deciding the course they are taking, they do their best work. And accomplished leaders somehow make this sense of self-determination possible – all while their followers are going exactly where these leaders intended them to go.

A woman I admire greatly is the CEO of a manufacturing company. She describes going to a CEO leadership training session where, for the entire weekend, none of these leaders was allowed to speak a single declarative sentence. Everything was phrased in a question. This linguistic trick was a powerful leadership tool. I had the privilege of observing this woman in action on a board of directors. When she had a point to make, she didn’t say, “I think we’re moving in the wrong direction! I think we have to change course!” Instead, she’d phrase her thoughts as questions. “Have the external circumstances changed since we first decided to undertake this action?” Or, “Are you worried that there may be some risks if we keep going in this direction?” Or, “Knowing what you know now, would you have taken these steps when you did?” Or, “Can we achieve the same ends by a different means?”

My friend had a very clear viewpoint, but she gave others permission to reach these same conclusions without losing face and without reacting defensively. She wasn’t bullying or dismissive. She was relentlessly respectful. For her, it was never about winning and losing, or about her idea against another person’s idea. It was about us, and about everyone reaching the right conclusions for the right reasons, without scapegoating. In short, she was leading from behind.

None of us can be Nelson Mandela. But would it not be an appropriate way to honor his memory if more of us came to realize that we can lead best by taking some determined steps to the back of the flock?

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Comments. Leave new

  • Hats off to you Al for encapsulating Mandela’s leadership so concisely! Thanks!

  • Thanks, Al, for another great article–on a day when I truly needed it! We devo professionals are so frequently in “middle management” positions, trying to effectively lead our board members and/or senior leadership into relationships that support our organization’s initiatives. Quietly leading from behind is akin to “managing up”–a skill where the ego is parked at the back door and mission stays front and center. This egocentric only child can use that reminder again and again 😉 Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.