Anne Berkowitch, co-founder and CEO of SelectMinds, advocates leading from the back of the boat in her interview posted at the New York Times’ Corner Office Blog. She notes that the best analogy for leadership is not the military general leading the charge, but the person at the back of the canoe who steers the craft. The back-of-the-boat leader doesn’t make all the decisions and can’t see everything clearly. What they can do is:

Make sure the vision is clear. The leader makes sure that everyone knows where they’re headed, and roughly how they’ll get there.

Ask great questions. Make fewer statements, and ask a lot more questions. This will elicit far more information and important dialogue that otherwise would not occur.

Support people. Rather than seeing your team’s role to help you, you are the servant leader whose goal is making your people’s lives easier.

From Humanergy’s experience with back-of-the-boat leaders, we’d add the following best practices:

Feed people. We’ve blogged on Feed, Need, Seed and Weed before. Feed comes first in the list, because it’s the most important and often overlooked. Feed the talented people up front in your boat by pointing out what’s working. Sure, you might have to weed out some negative behaviors, too, but that should be inversely proportional to the amount of time you spend feeding great performance.

Prevent complacency. Back-of-the-boat leaders don’t let their people get too comfortable with the status quo. They’re continually focused on innovation and cutting-edge performance that will keep the organization operating at its peak.

Be a mirror. Rather than “the answer,” people often need their leaders to be a mirror – to reflect back to them the behaviors and patterns the leader sees. Parker Palmer writes about using mirroring as part of circles of trust in his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. Mirroring is a powerful tool that can help people arrive at profound insights about the situation at hand. It can be as simple as saying, When I said X, you said Y. When you do this without judgment and advice, the listener is free to dig deeper and form his own conclusions.

Being a back-of-the-boat leader requires visibility to what is really going on in the organization. You can’t do that without rubbing elbows with the people who share your boat. “The desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world”,said author John le Carre. So leave yours for a while and find out how your shipmates are really doing.

Have a question or want some input from Humanergy about this topic? Contact us and we’ll get right back to you!