I frequently read posts on LinkedIn about inspiring and impressive leaders, those we look up to, those we admire for the sheer amount of incredible achievements and skills they have, those whose performance levels are the highest, outshining everyone else around them. While we have a need for inspirational examples like those leaders to follow, if we don’t have the space to grow, we will remain in the shadow of great leaders forever.
When top-down leadership works
There is certainly a time and a place for front line leaders who have more experience than their subordinates and lead from the top down. The military is a perfect example. The hierarchical system plays beautifully there: everyone knows their place and has the exact skills to perform their task. They take orders from their leaders who take orders from theirs and so on up the ranks all the way to the top. The top-down leadership style works well in emergencies as well. On a flight deck of an aircraft, the captain will have the final say in what course of action to take in case of an emergency. That is definitely not to say she/ he will not consult the other flight crew before making the final decision. On the contrary, the team’s view will be carefully considered. There are many other situations in any given organisation where the top-down style of leadership is preferred. This kind of leadership is also linked to different cultures than the ones in the western hemisphere: it prevails in many countries in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.
When a leader is required to stay backstage
There are, however, many circumstances where a leader who takes a back seat is preferable, even necessary. One perfect example is when coaching others to develop personal and leadership skills. In this case, the leader does not necessarily need to be at the helm but is the one who encourages others to the front, guiding them gently if they veer off course without ordering which direction to take. This leadership does not depend on having lots of followers, rather it supports everyone else to develop into leaders in their own right. The leader becomes the underground and unseen pillars on which the edifice is built, but the beauty and wonder belong to the newly surfaced.
Last summer, I was leading a team of trainee leaders on an expedition into the Amazon Rainforest. My role was to subtly prompt the trainee leaders to make decisions without telling them what, when and how to do things. For example, they were to supervise the younger expedition team members to prepare for a three-day hike out of base camp. As the leader, I watched the trainee leaders watch the expedition members make mistakes. At each level, the mistakes were purposefully not corrected to let the team utilise them as a learning tool for the next time. This process can be difficult because our natural instinct is to “help” others and not see them “fail”. The truth is that a lot is learnt from the mistakes and this style of leadership – from the backstage – lends itself well to allow for learning through mistakes. Of course, there was a limit to how many mistakes would be allowed and the severity of their impact would be carefully considered, especially given the unforgiving environment of the Amazon jungle. By taking a step back and letting the trainee leaders and other team members know that I was ultimately there for them, I created a safe environment in which these individuals could find their own path and pull themselves out of their comfort zone. Therefore there was no need to push them to do anything; they pulled themselves.
Choosing the right approach for the right moment
Whilst in some situations, organisations and cultures the leader is placed at absolutely centre stage, often the role of a leader needs to have a balance: pushing their team and also coaxing out or pulling the best from them. This can be achieved if the leader steps back and allows for the individuals or the entire team as a unit to take the initiative and make the critical decisions that drive them forwards.