When I was a kid, I was always the tallest girl in the class. And, until puberty struck, I was the tallest person. And that meant always standing at the back of the school photos. Every year from Kindergarten until Grade 7, when my new best friend was taller than me (probably no coincidence!), I took the middle spot in the back row. I did not enjoy this position for the first few years as I felt I stuck out too much and I didn’t like being taller than everyone else. I also felt like I was somehow missing out not being at the front where the action always seemed to be. I would watch the boys jostling each other, the girls whispering in each others’ ears and the teacher shushing everyone. After awhile though, I started to enjoy it. I realized that being at the back meant that I could see everything. I knew what was going on more than even the teacher probably as she/he was always to the side so did not have the same vantage point. I made my peace with standing at the back.
Recently, I watched a leader (I shall not name names) push his way to the front of a group photo. At first, it made me laugh. Then, it annoyed me. And then it made me think. Now this person (still remaining nameless) has a particular affinity for wanting to be seen so it’s easy to write him and the moment off. However, he is absolutely not alone in being a leader who believes their place is always at the front. We see it all the time. If we even look at the shape of a hierarchy, it’s pretty much a triangle with the head of the organization being the tip. When you look at stock images for leadership, the image is often something like this:
And it makes sense. The word ‘lead’ implies being followed. And, we do want to take our people toward something so that does require being out front.
However, when I was reflecting on my experience of standing at the back in my classroom photos, I realized that if we are always out front, we will never see what’s going on behind us. And that’s a problem. Our role as leaders of organizations is not just to have followers. We are trying to accomplish a mission of some sort. To do that, we need to have people working at optimal performance. We don’t know if they are when we spend all of our time looking at the horizon ahead of us. If we stand at the back, we can see more.
Modern leadership is also more focused on a shared approach to leadership as we now understand that those who feel involved in decision making feel an increased sense of ownership and are more engaged. We can’t involve others by being in front of them all the time. Turning around and facing them for a bit is good but then we lose sight of where we’re going. When you stand at the back you can see everything. You can still see the horizon ahead AND you can see your people. And as I found being the tallest girl in the school photos, you will still stand out even when you are standing at the back.
It is important to be at the front in order to lead but try standing at the back sometimes too. You will see more of what you need to see in order to lead well. And when you are moving back up front, you won’t need to push anyone out of the way to get there.
5 Strategies for ‘standing at the back’:
- Delegate. Usually when we think that ‘no one else could possibly do this’ we are wrong. If we were run over by a bus someone would have figure it out very quickly and do it. Don’t wait for the bus incident to see what your people can do!
- Take turns chairing staff meetings and sit back and watch sometimes. Only add something when guidance is needed or the group has questions. Check out the dynamics between people and hear their ideas and stories about the work they are doing.
- Ask good questions of individuals and in groups and just listen to the responses. Respond with more good questions rather than providing explanations or justifications.
- Ask your people to tell you stories and listen deeply (that means turning off your own brain and saying very little). Listen to the content and find insights in the stories that you can act upon either in the work you are doing or in your workplace.
- Give your people room to fail. Step back and allow things to happen even when you know it is going to go wrong. That’s how people learn. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn something too!
Thanks for reading!
Lianne Picot is the Executive Director of Peel Leadership Centre, an organization growing leadership and organizational capacity in the non-profit sector. Lianne is passionate about great leadership, storytelling and creating opportunities for transformational learning. Connect with Lianne at firstname.lastname@example.org.