What leading from behind looks like

Ironically enough, I was planning this Saturday to write a post about leadership, since an experience with one of my children’s sports reminded me how important leadership is.  I’ve been involved with this particular sport and this particular team for several years now.  It’s a nice team and always has been.  The kids’ coach is one of those guys with true charisma.  I think the kids’ would walk through fire for him.  He’s incredibly demanding, but also supp0rtive and successful, and he has a knack for establishing a rapport with children boasting all types of temperaments.  He is a leader.

The nature of the sport is that parent volunteers are absolutely essential to the team’s functioning.  Without 100% participation, the team falls apart.  We’re on our fourth president (a parent volunteer) since I started on the team.  We’re also on our best president.

Although an unassuming woman, this year’s president is a true leader:  she has a knack for finding good people, she’s well-organized, she makes her demands known without being unreasonably demanding, and she uses praise well.  She impresses me.

I also found myself in a leadership position this year, since I’m one of two people in charge of a computer system necessary for the team’s functioning.  In past years, another woman has had this task.  She’s a really nice person and she knows her stuff — but she wasn’t a leader.  She gave the team members tasked with entering data  at the meets (I was one of those people) minimal instruction enabling them to do only the most mechanical tasks of data entry.  Since they never had a big picture about how the system functioned, or even why we had this system, they were incapable of handling anything that deviated from the norm.

The  problem, of course, was that, at every meet, lots of stuff deviated from the norm, and we were all helpless.  If she wasn’t immediately available, things went to Hell in a hand basket.   Of all the volunteer tasks available for parents, this was always the hardest to staff because it was so fraught with problems and emergencies.

This year, things were different.  The management team did training.  We prepared a guidebook covering all eventualities, so that, in an emergency, everyone felt competent to find the answer and solve the problem.  When something happened, rather than taking over, we stood back, giving instructions and advice on an as-needed basis.  We were there, but we let our little fledglings fly.  The last meet was spectacularly successful.  Not only did we have fewer errors but, by the end of the meet, everyone who worked felt capable of dealing with anything that could arise.  We were efficient, we felt good about ourselves, and those at other volunteer stations who had to work with us liked us too.

A good leader knows when to stand aside and let others, more skilled in the task at hand, take over.  A good leader also knows how to delegate.  One could call type of training and delegation that leading from behind, but I would say that giving people appropriate responsibility is a facet of leadership from the front.

The contrary is true for that new phrase “Leading from behind.”  It strikes me as being a polite way of saying not doing anything at all.   Even if the leader is smart enough not to take on every task, he or she has to be there as both guide and inspiration.  There is a difference between delegating and abdicating.

That difference is why this picture of the situation room has struck so many people as peculiar:

As jj noted in a comment, Obama is tucked away in the corner. One could argue that he’s letting those who need to call the shots have preeminence in the room, but that doesn’t explain his positioning, hiding in the back.  Most of the people there are witnesses to history, not actors.  Obama as the chief actor — he is, after all, the Commander in Chief — should be front and center, not lost in the back.  He doesn’t look like a leader who is delegating responsibility effectively.  Instead, he looks like a mere spectator.

Nor am I inclined to attribute Obama’s subordinate position to either humility (letting his Vice President sit in front) or chivalry (letting Hillary, a woman, or Biden, an older man, have more prominent seats).  Obama has never shown himself to be either humble or chivalrous, since he is a man whose favorite word is “I” and who makes multiple speeches advocating head covering for women in Muslim lands.  In any event, given the gravity of the situation, and given his role as Commander in Chief, neither humility or chivalry have a place in the Situation Room.

He’s not leading from behind, he’s hiding behind.

I’m very glad bin Laden is dead.  I’m glad that Obama allowed our intelligence and military forces to continue the hunt.  I’m glad that Obama was ultimately willing to put his imprimatur on the order for bin Laden’s death.  For all these things, Obama deserves praise and congratulations.  But I still don’t think he’s a leader.