Business leaders can learn much from horses about teamwork and leadership. In our Leadership with Horses workshops, we take clients out of the office to work with horses. We share a leadership model that the horses use to create cohesive teamwork.
It involves three positions of leadership and we will explore Leading from behind in more detail in this post, including the critical application of this role in business. In a previous post, I explored the role of leading from the front. Leading from the front provides the clarity, direction, strategy and vision for organisations and teams.
Leading from behind
In a herd of horses, this is the role of the alpha stallion and is the second most dominant role within the herd. The primary role of the alpha stallion is to exert pressure from behind to move forward. The alpha stallion works closely with the alpha mare to ensure the team follows her lead and moves forward in the direction and pace set by her. He uses as little or as much energy as necessary, moderating his energy accordingly. That might be as simple as him following the herd. The herd move forwards, respecting him and his very presence. If they don’t or are not paying attention, he may bite them to get them to move more quickly.
The benefit of leading from behind is you can see everything that is happening in the team. You can steer to a small extent from behind by where you position yourself, but largely the team can choose its own way. For this reason, it is essential to have a clear understanding about the goal and the direction you are going.
In a workplace setting, this role is typically performed by Sales Operations, Finance Directors or Business Operations. Project Office Managers will lead from behind for their Project Manager. Leading from behind is useful when you are clear where you are heading and need an extra push towards the end of a project or deadline. It is useful to remind people of the commitments they have made.
Constant communication with the leader in the front is essential to ensure the pace and direction work for everyone and progress is being made. The leader at the back can advise the leader in front to slow down or speed up or modify the direction based on what is happening in the team. That’s why it’s useful to have a right-hand person when you lead from the front. If you have someone you trust who can let you know when things are going off track, you can modify the pace according to the needs of the team.
Leading from behind has a check and balance approach to it and requires as little pressure as possible to get a result. In human teams, the person leading from behind often exerts too much pressure too soon; for example, they may be coercive when people are doing the best they possibly can. If you regularly exert too much pressure from behind, it can have a nagging effect, and people will switch off. It is a good indication to lead from the front or the side.
When a horse leads from behind and nips another horse, it does so as assertive behaviour to get the other horse to pay attention. If you are leading from behind, increase the pressure by raising your energy slowly if you want to get someone to pay attention, but drop the pressure again once you have the attention. Otherwise you risk being coercive and losing the respect of the team.
People often fall into the trap of raising their energy and keeping it raised. They don’t lower it again because they assume that this level of energy is needed constantly. Horses are much more skilled in raising and lowering their energy according to what is needed at a specific moment, and we can learn so much from observing the way they lead from behind.
If nobody leads from behind, the team can lose momentum and fall behind the leader in the front or go off track. One of the challenges of leading from behind is it can feel exhausting if the direction and pace are not already clear. If you find yourself getting exhausted, there is a good chance you are leading too much from behind, and more time is needed to clarify the vision, goals and objectives from the front.
How effective are you at leading from behind? Are you gaining respect or fear?
When you lead from the front, who is supporting you from behind?
Many clients find this approach enlightening. Some discover that they drive so hard from behind and need more clarity about where they are heading. Others learn that they lead so far in front and nobody is supporting them from behind so things get missed. An effective team needs a leader in front and behind. Agile leaders can flex quickly according to what is needed in the moment.
How agile is your leadership?
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