I have been interviewing a lot in the past few months as I seek my next career move. In these interviews, I get asked the following question frequently:
- “What kind of a Leader are you?” (or)
- “Tell me about your leadership style?” (or)
- “How do you lead teams?”
It is a very important question to me, as it touches the core of my values, principles, strengths, and beliefs. Because, the way I choose to lead drives major decisions such as where I fit in a company/organization, what kind of people I work with, how I hire, and how I get results.
Fortunately, I have thought about this a LOT, ever since I started managing people. In my world, I categorize leaders into two buckets:
- those who lead from the top, and
- those who lead from behind.
The business world is filled with folklores of those who lead from top, such as, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jack Welch, and so on. These people are visionaries — one of a kind. They posses very rare talent that is hard to find, and impossible to train. But, when put in the right roles, they shine like a diamond. In reality though, we don’t find very many of them, and when we do, they are larger-than-life figures.
How about the other category of leaders — those who lead from behind? By definition, you don’t hear much about them, as they pull strings from behind. As Nelson Mandela puts it,
“Those who lead from behind are like Shepherds — 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.”
I relate myself to this bucket of leaders.
I didn’t figure this out right away. Over the period of years, I read many books, attended seminars, researched great leaders, listened to my mentors, introspected myself, and more importantly, tried many things on the job before figuring out my leadership style.
I credit Professor Linda Hill of Harvard Business School — a big proponent of this approach — for helping me crystallize my thoughts on my leadership style.
Dr. Hill spend many years talking to great business leaders of our times in order to understand how leadership might look in the future, and here is what she has to say:
“the psychological contract between employers and employees are changing. Employees are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives. They want the opportunity to co-author the organization’s purpose”.
Given this trend, She recommends the new leaders to recognize this trend, and make use of the “slice of genius” of each of the employees rather than just issuing commands and expecting employees to execute.
What are the characteristics of those who lead from behind?
Here are the most important ones:
- They believe in “collective genius” of the team
Those who lead from behind believe strongly in *inclusive decision making* compared to unilateral decision making. Rather than always staying in the front, they let different team members with different strengths and skill-set come forward at appropriate times to lead the team forward, so that the the collective wisdom of the crowd leads to more effective results.
In reality though, the decisions are not always unanimous, and the team members may not always arrive at a consensus. Great leaders step in only when there is a lack of consensus, or when the team cannot effectively resolve their differences. And, when they do so, they make sure that the entire team is behind that decision. Leading from behind does not mean staying away from decision making. The hardest part of this leadership style is to know when to step-in, and when to stay behind.
- They build communities and organizational capabilities that fosters continual breakthrough innovation
Those who lead from behind believe strongly that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary results by coming together for a common cause. In order to empower these people to succeed in their mission, great leaders go through a deliberate process of building organizational capabilities (teams, tools, processes, etc) that encourages creative thinking, creative discourse, and creative agility.
Few examples come to my mind: 1. the breakthrough innovations that came out of Xerox PARC in the 70s from Ethernet to Laser Printers to Personal Computers… 2. Facebook’s hacker culture that encourages engineer to “move fast and break things”… 3. How Google famously allows engineers to spend 20% of their time on projects that interest them. There are many more…
- They empower teams to make decisions, instead of just issuing commands
Those who lead from behind encourage breakthrough innovation not by designating followers who can only execute, but by building communities that can continuously innovate. Here are some of the common traits of these leaders:
Leading from Behind . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Leading from the Top
Asking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Telling
Inquiring . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Prescriptive
Exploring Together . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Fixing the Problem
Seeing an Opportunity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Seeing a Problem
Practicing Transparency . . . . . . . . . . . . . Imparting Knowledge/Wisdom
Participatory . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . .Hierarchical
Reduced Control . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Empower decision making
To be honest, my leadership principles have evolved over the past many years. I am sure that my principles will continue to grow and mature as I gain more experience, meet more people and learn from them. But, I don’t believe it will change drastically. As mentioned above, leaders largely fall into one of the two buckets — those who lead from above, and those who lead from behind. On any given day, you might improvise one vs. another to make progress (and you will have to do it invariably depending on the circumstances), but innately belong to one kind or the other. Only you know it better!
Now, what kind of leader are you?
I would love to hear your thoughts.