Are We Ready to Lead from Behind?

Published June 14, 2011

As sport management consultants, it is our responsibility to scour the literature to translate latest trends into meaningful knowledge for our clients. One such trend that has entrenched itself into the business domain is the idea of 'leading from behind' or 'servant leadership'. The term was initially conceived by management guru Robert Greenleaf. Other great management writers have gone on to explore this form of leadership which essentially focuses on the needs of the people they are in service of … their staff and key volunteers. While this may seem as a radical idea for some, consider some of the coaching styles that have emerged where coaches employ a form of servant leadership to extract the maximum ability of the athletes they are in service of. This is a stark departure from the ‘command and control’ era of leadership that some of us grew up with. Remember when we were asked to ‘jump’ and our immediate response would be ‘how high?’

Here are some of my observations on the topic of leadership and how it might need to ‘dare I say’ evolve to meet the demands of the 21st century.

1. Hire other leaders. Gone are the days when leaders could afford to surround themselves with ‘yes people’. Smart leaders look for qualities such as initiative, fearlessness, determination, courage, good communication skills, in their staff. You never know where the next ‘big idea’ will come from so cultivating a workplace that has these core leadership skills in place, is critical moving forward.

2. Share your organization’s mission, vision, values. We have written here before about inclusive planning processes. One way to increase the investment you make in your strategic plan is to ensure that all staff and key volunteers are not only aware of it, but are engaged in the process. You can measure the extent to which your staff know your mission, vision and values by including a measurement matrix within the annual performance evaluation, by making these statement visible, and by regular mentoring sessions.

3. Reward and recognize outstanding performance. Ample research indicates that employees want more than just remuneration to feel fully satisfied at their workplace. Other ways to reward outstanding performance includes recognition, awards of merit, thank-you cards, gifts, additional holidays, etc. I know of one great sport leader who sent flowers to the spouse of her head coach when he was away with the national team. If you want to keep good people, you will have to find innovative ways to show your appreciation.

4. Develop a values-driven culture. Great organizational leaders walk the talk when it comes to values. Not only do they communicate them powerfully, they ensure that they are living up to the values. Too often, staff become disenfranchised when leaders espouse a core set of values and then set them aside when it’s convenient or when the going gets tough. Great organizational leaders make a commitment to live the values, to communicate them, and to find ways to embed them within the organization’s culture. They also look for way to align corporate values with individual values – if the fit isn’t there, then it’s an indication that someone needs to look for another job.

5. Invest in your greatest assets … your people. Great leaders pay attention to the small stuff. They look to bring out the best in their staff and key volunteers and provide them with the training they need to become better. Important skills such as communications, project management, conflict resolution, time management, negotiations, change management, etc. can help your great people grow and flourish.

6. Transfer knowledge. Make it a regular occurrence to host ‘lunch and learns’ so that staff can benefit from your ‘tacit’ knowledge. You can theme them according to your strengths and use ‘real life stories’ to bring your lessons to life. Often we get invited to these sessions to bring an external perspective to an important topic. The main idea is to create an intentional opportunity for staff to continuously learn.

7. Role models. If you don’t have a formal mentorship program in place, start thinking about it. What happens when you decide to leave? Great leaders want to leave their organization in a better place than they found it,  and then provide the opportunity for others to take it to even greater heights. What are you doing now to ensure that you leave a permanent legacy in place within your organization? One way is to encourage greater connectivity between more experienced staff and newer employees. Make this learning a part of your culture and watch what happens.

There is much more we will write on the subject of leadership moving forward. We encourage you to consider your own leadership style and select the approach that best reflects your own personal values.

Dina Bell-Laroche

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