Recently there has been a great deal of debate and controversy surrounding a concept that President Obama has embraced in dealing with the situation in Libya. I’m specifically referring to “Leading from the Back.” My intention in bringing this concept up is not to provide a political commentary (I’ll leave that to the pundits) but rather examine how this idea might fit within the world of project management. While some have called this concept the Obama doctrine, the idea struck me as one that I’d heard about before so I did a quick search and found a Times article written about Nelson Mandela’s 8 Lessons of Leadership. What I found very interesting about the article is that Mandela outlined leadership behaviors and attitudes that in many respects go against conventional wisdom (at least of the day). It seems that the individual who applies the lesson of leading from the back is someone who is a lot more introspective than what is typically expected of a leader in business and project management. This may be because we have grown accustomed to the “larger than life leader.” The person who stands in front and takes charge of meetings and activities. We expect that leader to not only have a clear vision but a plan for how to get there along with the ability to delegate to others.
The concept of leading from the back goes against these ideas in that the leader provides others on the team the space to come up with the plan and assign responsibilities. Beyond simply articulating the vision, the leader steps back and allows those “around the circle” to work things out. This person is someone who does not “enter the debate too early.”
So the main question that comes to mind based on this brief understanding is would leading from the back work in project management?
This question got me thinking about whether this concept is a situational one. In other words, can leaders lead from the front in certain situations while leading from the back on others? The answer came from the Times article on Mandela again in that another of the 8 lessons is “Leading from the Front.”
Perhaps this is a subliminal message to leaders, especially ones who are in project management, that true leadership is about leading from the front and the back at the same time. It requires the ability to listen to others and not have all the answers, but at the same time while leading from the front not to leave anyone behind.
This in my opinion is directly aligned with that project managers do as these professionals are not always subject matter experts on the technical aspects of their projects. As such, their leadership role is not about convincing others of a certain point of view as much as it is helping others reach consensus.
Given this, I believe that Leading from the Back can work for project management, as long as we understand that it comes with a risk that the “leader” can be scene as indecisive and reactive. Addressing those riks can help position this idea in a positive light to make it work for project management.