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Where Do You Lead - From the Front or the Rear?

Lori West 21 Feb 2017
When you think of leadership, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? Do you see a strong, strident individual marching off into the distance with a milieu of people following her? Do you see a brazen, bold person with flocks of admirers gathering round his podium?

This is an image people often have of leaders. They are the ones out in front. They are the people attracting crowds with their rhetoric and their cult of personality like moths to a flame.

But how did they get to this position? Did they begin their journey out in front?

Many people rise through the ranks to leadership positions by being vocal and visible about an issue. The image of leadership that inhabits the collective psyche at the moment consists of oversized public displays of strength bolstered by tough words and loud, booming voices. Whether the voices come through television broadcasts or 140-character tweets, it’s a certain type of leadership display that we’re getting used to seeing.

But, I want to draw your attention to an important word: display. The word originates from the Latin word displicare, which means to scatter or disperse. And this is what leadership appears to be all about right now. If you scatter your message far and wide enough, you will land some followers. You might get noticed, and you might even win an election!

It reminds me of typical mating rituals in the animal kingdom. Earth is loaded with creatures that go to great lengths to attract a mate. Some, like the puffer fish, create elaborate sand sculptures at the bottom of the sea. Others, like the peacock, extend and their beautiful array of tail feathers to attract a female. Still others, like the male Adelie penguin, collect rocks to present to the females they desire.

It’s a very visible display of persuasive tactics designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to ensure the individual’s genetic heritage proliferates forward to a new generation. Scattering one’s seed, as it were. It’s rather indiscriminate.

You’ve got to hand it to Mother Nature. She certainly imbues her inhabitants with creativity and ingenuity. And while these strategies demonstrate powerful persuasion and influence, are they indications of real leadership or opportunistic, momentary conquests that serve to satisfy an instinctual urge?

These elaborate rituals create the desired effect, which is “winning” the prize of a mate and propagating one’s DNA. In that sense, yes, you could say it is effective, influential leadership, and it is fit for purpose. However, will this style of leadership cultivate and build an ongoing community? Is it the right sort of leadership to sustain and foster collaboration and growth?

I ask this question as I consider two subjects that may seem to be at odds but in fact share some similarities: wolves and skiing. One of the obvious connections is mountains, which make up a wolf’s natural habitat, but the connection extends beyond that.

Scientists know that wolves live in packs with a clearly-defined, hierarchical social structure. The alpha male and female play the dominant roles, making the key decisions for the rest of the community. Recently, I learned something rather interesting about how wolves organise themselves, especially when they are on the move. The alphas lead from behind. They do not lead from the front.

Interesting, isn’t it?

How does this relate to skiing? Well, on the mountain people tend to ski in packs of various sizes. While it’s an individual sport, it’s a highly social one. You stop at various points to take in the views, discuss where to go next (especially where you intend to stop for a hot chocolate) and check in with other members of your group to make sure everyone is OK. It’s a risky sport, so it’s important to make sure everyone is feeling good on the mountain.

What’s interesting, though, is something I’ve noticed since I began skiing. The true alpha skier, like alpha members of a wolf pack, leads from the rear, not from the front.

Here’s how it works. When wolves travel in a pack, the eldest, youngest and weakest walk at the front, acting as the pace setters so they don’t get left behind. The beta wolves fill out the middle, supporting the weaker members. The alpha wolves (male and female) follow last.

It’s from the back that the alphas can keep an eye on every member of the pack, see the pack in relation to the landscape out in front while remaining sensitive to what's behind, and effectively respond to situations as they arise. Given that it’s the alphas’ jobs to protect and make decisions on behalf of the entire pack, the alphas must be appropriately informed before making those decisions.

As a skier, I certainly feel the weight of significance when I support my pack from the rear. When I was a novice skier, it was a little terrifying bringing up the rear. I certainly didn’t feel up to the task of supporting anyone else on the mountain, and I remember the fear of being left to fend for myself. Being given that level of responsibility when you're not ready is intensely fear-provoking. While a healthy dose of fear is often a good thing, in a sport like skiing, too much fear can be paralysing.

Now that I’m more confident on the snow, being in the alpha role feels less daunting, but still important. If there’s any trouble on the mountain, I will be the one most able to take care of business. I’m acutely aware of the magnitude of the role given the fact that skiing carries a high degree of risk, magnified significantly when the slopes are teeming with other human packs.

It’s an entirely different experience to leading from the front. If you’re guiding others who are new to the resort, it can make sense to set off first so others can follow you. However, if you’re not careful, you can tear down the mountain leaving your pack in a cloud of snow spray. This is OK if the members of your group are all accomplished skiers, but it doesn’t work if you have weaker members among you.

I have found myself looking over my shoulder to check that the others are behind me. When I’m not facing the direction that I’m travelling, I am acting irresponsibly. Why? Because as a skier I am responsible for what happens down the mountain, not up it. This includes the people who are in front of me, whether they are part of my particular pack or not.

As a leader, it is vital that you focus your vision on the wider vista of the direction you’re travelling, whether you’re on a snow-covered mountain piste or in the boardroom. Failure to do so puts you and the company at risk of a wrong turn or a possible collision that could have serious consequences.

What does this mean for business leadership? Well, consider your own leadership style, or if you’re not in a leadership position yet, evaluate the leaders around you. To lead from the rear, you must have developed a leadership style that carries a high degree of integrity and trust. Trust is something that’s earned, and integrity lives in action. Rhetoric can spark the process, but action brings this style of leadership to life, and it builds in power and effectiveness over time with repeated examples of trustworthy behaviour.

If you’re interested to know where you tend to lead, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do I:

1a. Set the direction and expect others to follow
1b. Make decisions based on input from the team

2. Do I:

2a. Race ahead on my own
2b. Travel at a similar pace as other team members

3. Do I:

3a. Promote my team’s accomplishments as my own
3b. Give credit where credit is due

4. Do my people:

4a. Expect to fend for themselves
4b. Know I’ve got their backs

5. Do I value:

5a. Short-term gains
5b. Long-term results

If you answered mostly a, you definitely lead from the front. If you answer mostly b, you definitely lead from the rear.

Let me be clear. One is not inherently better than the other. Both are necessary and appropriate. The challenge for you is to know when it’s appropriate to lead from the front and when to lead from the rear. If you lean too heavily on one style of leading, you must develop the other to create balance, completeness and dynamism.

I often use the analogy of breathing. If you attempt to inhale or exhale exclusively, you will die very quickly. You must allow flow between the two positions to create health, vitality and life. You’ve got to breathe in to breathe out. Similarly, you’ve got to lead from the rear to lead from the front, and vice versa.

Brilliant leaders are not glory hunters, for they know that this type of leadership fizzles out quickly. Instead, they create a consistent burn that ignites the spark and feeds the passion in their followers, and themselves, over time. Combining consistency, patience and magnanimity with vision, direction and pace keeps the pack’s life force glowing with radiant health.

Isn't this what leadership is really about?

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