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Mandela Saw the Wisdom in Leading From Behind

Part of his legacy is knowing the difference between assertiveness and leadership.
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In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela likens leadership to shepherding, of all things: "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."

Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill has spoken and written about this concept of leading from behind for years. In her view, leading from behind is an essential skill for great leaders. Here are two key components to leading from behind: 

1. View leadership as a collective activity. An ideal leader knows how to cultivate a setting in which others can step up and lead, Hill tells Harvard Business Review.

"This image of the shepherd behind his flock is an acknowledgment that leadership is a collective activity in which different people at different times--depending on their strengths, or 'nimbleness'--come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go. The metaphor also hints at the agility of a group that doesn't have to wait for and then respond to a command from the front. That kind of agility is more likely to be developed by a group when a leader conceives of her role as creating the opportunity for collective leadership, as opposed to merely setting direction."

2. Don't confuse displays of assertiveness with leadership. If you do, you might overlook some great potential leaders in your organization, just because they happen to be less vocal or showy in the way they get things done. "Because they don't exhibit the take-charge, direction-setting behavior we often think of as inherent in leadership, they are overlooked when an organization selects the people it believes have leadership potential," Hill says.

As an example, she cites Taran Swan, who worked for Nickelodeon Latin America. When Swan's team made presentations to upper management, Swan calmly sat on the side and let team members do the talking. She'd occasionally speak up to support or claify a point.

One of Swan's supervisors warned her about her inclusive approach. He told her, "'You're making a career mistake. You're not going to get ahead if you do this. It would be better if you came by yourself and made the presentations,'" Hill recounts. In the supervisor's view, Swan's behavior wasn't leader-like. But her results were: Amidst highly unstable market conditions, her team managed to build Nickelodeon's presence in Latin America and to meet its overall budget.

In short, there are times when great leadership means letting go of whether others, including your supervisors, perceive your actions as leadership-worthy.

Certainly, this is one trait to remember about Mandela, and to keep in mind when considering leadership development in your own organization. "All too often, little things--taking the lead in a presentation, appearing to know more than you do--are still seen as markers of leadership potential," Hill concludes. "When in fact they may represent traits that are the opposite of what we need in a leader today."




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