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Try leading from the back of the boat

Dec 06, 2010 Business Daily, Leadership

“If you think about how you steer a boat, it’s always from the back, and I’ve moved toward the back of the boat. Initially, my sense of leadership was to be the military general out in front of the troops and the first one rushing into battle. You have to be a leader. You have to be visible. People have to know that you’re in charge and that you’re leading the charge, but I think it’s got to be almost more of a support role.”

Anne Berkowitch, interviewed in the New York Times (4 September 2010)

Whoa, wait a minute – lead from the back of the boat? What’s that all about? If you go to the back, people forget you’re the leader. They replace you. To lead, you have to be at the front – visibly and vocally so.

But Ms Berkowitch, co-founder of social networking company SelectMinds, is telling you something important about leadership. Sure, leaders are meant to stand at the front, issue directives, show direction, take responsibility. Yet leadership is just as much about something quite different: growing others.

People do not grow when they are constantly standing in the shadow of a barking megalomaniac who never leaves the front of the boat and who never gives anyone else a chance to steer. The other members of such a team will wilt, acquiesce – or jump overboard.

In Ms Berkowitch’s words: “You can’t be too far in the back of the boat, but I think it’s really important that each member of my team feel that they’re on the front lines of their own area, and I’m pushing them more and more into stuff they don’t necessarily know how to do.”

Now that is an essential element of leadership: pushing people out of their comfort zones. Most leaders do not do this at all, let me confirm: they are quite happy for their team-members to be confined wholly to their allotted roles and never, ever, attempt to challenge them. Such an organization may prosper for a while, impelled forward by the sheer force of personality of its leader – but it will always come unstuck eventually. With no one to challenge the leader, with only one set of ideas ever carrying the day, with team members just taking orders – that organization will soon run out of impetus.

So how should leaders get to the back of the boat? Here’s a further insight from Ms Berkowitch: “Ask a lot more questions and make a lot fewer statements. Leadership is really about asking questions and letting people answer them. I think it’s the only way you get your team to think. If you’re constantly talking at them, they don’t have to think. So, it’s the way to put them on the front line. My job is to get the questions out and have people answer the questions.”

That is higher-order leadership thinking: the essence of leadership is to frame the questions, not provide all the answers. In my leadership development programme, some of the finest leaders I have observed are the ones who spend a lot of time thinking up the right questions to ask, like: What do we really stand for?; Why do we do it this way?; Why does our customer stick with us? Which customers never come to us? Are we a great organization to work for?

Those are leadership questions. Get your key people to think about them, answer them, and then address the issues that the questions raise. Get them to fix the problem. This is not an abdication of your leadership – it is an affirmation. Self-confident, assured leaders are the only ones who can ever go to the back of the boat. The insecure type stays at the front shouting, acting out leadership rather than doing it.

So try a little stint at the back – your leadership will grow, not diminish.

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