YOU THE LEADER - 23 January 2014
Rainbow at Sunset - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
When you ask people to describe what they think a leader looks like, many would imagine a person standing out in front of a group of people. That person would be charismatic. The leader be speaking in clear tones about subjects that would matter to the audience. He probably would be saying “follow me!” Such is the stereotype of the leader. That’s not the only way to exercise leadership. In fact, the person you see out in front might not be leading you anywhere. He might be leading you nowhere but it sure feels like you’re being led. Or, he might be leading you precisely where you were heading in the first place as in he was just suggesting the obvious. There are other ways to lead and none of them involve the leader standing up in front of the group.
I promote an idea where the leading doesn’t always happen out in front. This other leader is not the guy out in front being the center of attention. This person is out of the spot-light. He's probably a teammate, promoting the groups agenda, suggesting where the team should go, reinforcing others on the team, being the point-person when needed but rarely taking the lime-light. This leader is leading from behind.
Here’s a specific problem associated with many typical leaders—lack of imagination. These people might be working constantly on yesterday’s problems. They might be promoting incremental solutions that make little difference. They might be talking a talk about big changes that do little except to make big changes with no real impact. I know about this type of leader because I’ve been that guy or worked for those guys. But, it’s not all their fault. The “system” doesn’t support creativity because every big system “needs” to have all its parts act predictably.
You can think of these types like they're the team lead on the cog in a gigantic machine. Such leaders are constrained by the circumstances surrounding their cog. Despite what innovations this leader might be promoting, the cog pretty much does things the same, the way it’s always done things. What goes on with that cog doesn’t change much over time.
A team member who’s not out in front, that person just out of the spot-light, has the tremendous advantage of not being held to doing things as they’ve always been. Sure, there are lots rules and limitations within any organizations so those rules can be constraining. But, a good team-member that’s leading from behind can stay within those constraints and is still be able to freely think and promote ideas beyond normal bounds.
I’ve been a part of big and small organizations for all of my professional life. When I encounter people who were disappointed with the rate of progress with change/transformation I usually bring up this analogy: Imagine you’re the trim tab on the rudder of the Titanic. When you’re in the government, it’s very easy to relate to this analogy, being the Titanic. As the Titanic is slicing through the water to its destiny, imagine being able to affect its fate. “How?” you ask. As the trim tab, you can persistently move in one direction. Eventually, the trim tab moves the rudder which ultimately moves the Titanic, which affects her destiny.
The lesson in this is all about being persistent. By being persistent, eventually the people around you adjust—the rudder starts moving—then the whole organization begins to move. It's only a matter of time.
The captain of the ship is not the trim tab. He’s steering the boat by using the rudder. But, just because he has his hands on the steering wheel (sorry, I’m not using the right nautical term here) he may not really be leading. He might not have any idea where the boat is going even though he looks the part. If he’s steering the boat the wrong way, you can still influence the course by being that trim-tab. This approach is slow. It's hard to see the change. But, the results are inevitable, such is the fate of being persistent and consistent.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” - Mahatma Gandhi
Who are these guys? Our histories are replete with examples of people who didn’t lead from the front. Some of them were with us for too short of time, suffering their fates for being persistent in what they believed. Obviously some were more famous than others. I am sure we all have our own examples. I’ve found these leaders have ideas no one else thinks of. They aren’t afraid of embracing concepts they didn’t think of—no “not invented here” problems. They’re with us when the situations get bad or when there’s too much to do. They promote us, pat us on the back with others aren’t. The appreciate their teammate’s sacrifice though too much attention on this detracts from the goodness of such sacrifice. You’d probably never know they’re at the top of their profession because such attention is a distraction to the larger group goal. They’re amazing teammates. And, despite them not being out in the lime-light, they perform flawlessly when thrust in such situations.
Being a leader is not some special gift only a select few have. I’d even say, the people you see out in front are likely performing just beyond their abilities—reference the “Peter Principal”. I’m saying all this because you might not think you’ll ever have the ability to make a difference in whatever you’re interested in. I’m suggesting this concept to open the possibility that everyday people like you or I can help guide their groups in the right direction. Truly, it’s just a door that’s waiting for you to step through if you so choose.
Epic Trip to Yellowstone May 2013RainbowSunset