Great Leaders Know When to Get Out of the Way

One of the most important roles of a manager at any level is to groom more leaders. One of the best methods for doing that, says Steve Keating, is to not lead – or at least not lead in the manner people traditionally think of leading.

“If your goal as a leader is to grow more leaders, then you must first understand that leadership can’t really be taught, it must be experienced,” states Keating in a recent blog. Keating has more than three decades of experience training sales teams and sales management leaders. “You can tell your followers what leadership characteristics are important, you can talk about making good decisions and the sacrifices that Authentic Leaders make but you can’t build a leader with words alone.”

Go Ahead, Lead from Behind

He encourages leaders to step aside and “push your future leaders out front” to see what they can do. In other words, lead from behind. That’s a term that is used derogatorily in politics, but it can have important benefits in business, says Tim Cummuta, who has consulted businesses in strategic planning, productivity, HR, sales and marketing, and risk management.

“Great leaders build teams of individuals that can operate on their own in almost any environment. It is often hard for leaders to let go and let someone else sink or swim based upon their actions alone or lack thereof. If the goal is to build a team of individuals that can be autonomous, solving problems or adapting as necessary to fluid situations on their own, then the eagles must be made to leave the nest,” Cummuta says.

Embrace Mistakes

Even if mistakes are imminent as a result of letting others lead, the long-term return is worth it (as long as they have minor consequences). Keating is a believer in the adage that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. “They may make mistakes along the way, but you will be there to help them fix it. Notice, and this is key, I didn’t say you’ll be there to fix it for them, I said you’ll be there to help them fix it.”

Not letting future leaders take the helm is like planting grass seed with no intention of watering it, adds Keating.

No less than the late South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was a proponent of leading from behind. Mandela equated great leadership to being a shepherd. “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”