Linda Hill on “leading from behind”
Here is an excerpt from article written by Linda Hill for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Daily Alerts, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
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(Editor’s note: This post is part of a six-week blog series on how leadership might look in the future. The conversations generated by these posts will help shape the agenda of a symposium on the topic in June 2010, hosted by HBS’s Nitin Nohria, Rakesh Khurana, and Scott Snook.)
For now and into coming decade or so, the most effective leaders will lead from behind, not from the front — a phrase I’ve borrowed from none other than Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography, Mandela equated a great leader with 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.”
It’s a concept whose time has come, given several realities:
The psychological contract between companies and employees is changing. Among other things, people are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives. They want and increasingly expect to be valued for who they are and to be able to contribute to something larger than themselves. People expect to have the opportunity to co-author their organization’s purpose. They want to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world.
Innovation — not simply incremental but continual breakthrough innovation — will be a key driver of competitiveness. Society’s notion of the brilliant innovator, the solitary genius with a sudden flash of creative insights is hard to shake. But, after all, an iPod or a Pixar movie is not the product of a single person’s vision or labors. Most innovation is the result of collaborative work involving a diverse group and a collective process of iteration and discovery. Those in positions of authority have been taught to think that it’s their job to come up with the big idea — but sustained innovation comes when everyone has an opportunity to demonstrate a “slice of genius” (an idea that has evolved from my research with Greg Brandeau, the CTO of the Walt Disney Studios, and my research associate Emily Stecker). Breakthroughs come when seemingly ordinary people make extraordinary contributions.
Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute but building communities that can innovate. Of course, leaders do need to act as direction-setters and vision-makers, and we need to prepare them for those roles. But we often emphasize these skills at the expense of others that are growing in importance. If you’re looking for innovation, it doesn’t make much sense to say that the leader’s job is to set the course and mobilize people to follow them there. If you want your team to produce something truly original, you don’t know where you’re going, almost by definition. The traditional leadership model just doesn’t work.
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Daily Alerts, please visit email@example.com.
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Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Dunham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and Faculty Chair of the Leadership Initiative.
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