Leading From the Rear

Last Updated Jan 24, 2008 11:13 AM EST

The Lead-From-the-Rear LeaderI've just consulted my paper-based(!) American Heritage dictionary on the word lead. The first definition reads, "To show the way to by going in advance."

But should leaders also think about directing from the rear?

Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill is studying leadership models in emerging economies including South Africa, China, and India. And what she sees are styles and practices of leadership much different than in the West -- but methods that may be better suited to the realities of the new world economy.

In a new Harvard Business Review interview Where Will We Find Tomorrow's Leaders?, Hill introduces the concept of leading from behind, an idea she hit upon reading Nelson Mandela's autobiography. Mandela describes a tribe leader guiding his people like a shepherd leads his flock, from behind rather in front. The shepherd allows the most nimble of the herd to journey ahead, the others following. Says Hill:

To me, this take on the shepherd image embodies the kind of leader we increasingly need: someone who understands how to create a context or culture in which other people are willing and able to lead. 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.
Hill doesn't advocated leading from the rear as a complete leadership solution. Sometimes, such as in the case of an emergency, the leader must jump to the front to get immediate results. But in today's world of global resources and opportunities, where decision making is increasingly collaborative, team-based, and decentralized, the day of the all-knowing, all-seeing Person in Charge may be a thing of the past.

Do you lead from behind? When would this style not work?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.