Lead from the front, or lead from behind?

We often hear that leaders should set a good example and lead from the front, but in more recent times we have also heard that good leadership can also mean leading from behind. In fact, it was one of Nelson Mandela’s mantras: “Lead from the back - and let others believe they are in front”

Leading from the front means we are demonstrating our leadership by going first. In some situations, this means the leader does the tough things first to show how it can be done. Showing is sometimes easier than telling. Many leaders also do not believe in asking their teams to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves. This can go a long way with employees as it builds respect and trust. However, realistically, in large organisations, doing things first as a leader is not always possible.

Leading from behind can be interpreted as leaders not wanting to be involved or do the do, but if done properly, communicated in the right way, it enables teams to grow, gain confidence and be more productive. Leading from behind requires good judgement, deciding when the team are ready to lead themselves. It also requires strong delegation skills and a hands-off approach to let the team find their own feet. The skill in leading from behind is knowing when to step in to support as needed, without making the team feel like a failure. The even bigger skill is to allow teams to learn by their mistakes. This only makes them stronger, pre-empt possible failures in the future and mitigate against them. Failure is one of our key learning methods – so we have to embrace it.

So, which is the best approach? Leading from the front or from behind? To be honest, it depends on the circumstances, the individual, team or organisation. Lead from the front when there is change within the business – show you are embracing the change and others will too. Or lead from the front if you have a new team, by leading by example. In later months, you can then lead from behind as this enables established teams to flourish, be empowered and believe in themselves. If your organisation is fast paced and not afraid of failure, then giving autonomy can reap rewards.

Ultimately, be decisive in which ever leadership approach you take, sitting on the fence or flip flopping between styles will only disgruntle employees as they don’t know where they stand and create a lack of respect for your lack of direction. Be true to yourself and to your teams.

If you want to better understand how to best lead your teams then get in touch at
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