Leading From Behind

Published: June 20, 2013

In retrospect, the ambitious project was probably a test. The project manager's boss wondered about his ability to lead from behind. In the past, his creative mind and boundless energy had distanced him from his teammates. Often, his pace and focus prohibited him from hearing feedback or seeing alternate perspectives. The test project would become a tipping point for his career since it could only be accomplished if he was able to empower the leadership of his peers. Not surprisingly, he got off on the wrong foot.

Innovation was his strength. New ideas jumped out of his head and were swiftly modeled for delegation and implementation. In previous projects, he could create chaos and then hand off accountability to those most influenced by the change. The IT guys would handle the technology challenges. Human Resources would sort out the people issues. Marketing would find a way to package and promote the new brand. Operations would design processes to support the new way of doing business. In the meantime, the project manager could dive into his next invention unaware of the fire drill he had ignited.

The test project required collaboration instead of delegation. The only way to move forward was to gather key information from experts. At first, the project manager’s peers were reluctant to play along. Recent history made them wonder who would perform the labor and who would receive the credit. With a deep breath and a dose of courage, one of his peers decided to speak up on behalf of the team. Respectfully, she laid out the evidence of his blind spot. She invited him to consider her frame of reference. Slowly, he lowered his guard and experienced the world through her eyes.

At first, he beat himself up for being oblivious to the impact of his single-minded focus on the people that mattered most to him. While he hadn’t intended to cause them pain, it was now clear that his actions had resulted in their struggle. Beyond taking accountability and offering an apology, all he could do was be different in the future. He asked his brave colleague if she would be willing to monitor his change effort and alert him of any transgressions in his new commitment to collaboration. She readily agreed.

His transformation was subtle but effective. In addition to the successful completion of the project, the buzz around the agency echoed the news of the project manager’s maturation. The project had been completed without chaos or fire drills. Everyone felt included and teammates shared recognition for a job well done. Most importantly, the quality of the outcome reflected the collective contribution of the entire team.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.