Leadership for a New Age

Cynthia Aaronson
August 26, 2020

This is a challenging time to write about leadership. We are not getting much positive modeling from our public officials and this changing world makes it hard to know how to lead in the most effective ways.

Sometimes, as leaders, we must take our cue from the people around us and lead from behind. You may be asking, “Is leading from behind really leading?” The answer is yes. Leading from behind — which some might call influencing or coaching — is a critical part of leadership.

“Empowering your employee in this way allows them to find their voice and learn how to navigate uncertainty.”

We need to realize that our colleagues frequently have excellent ideas of their own but may have trouble with implementation. We have the opportunity to coach and develop the people around us as they go forward into new projects or uncharted territory by letting them take the lead with our guidance available as needed.

One way to achieve this is by utilizing an “ask not tell” approach. This involves asking open-ended questions to help you and your colleague figure out the best way to proceed with a difficult situation or thorny problem. Many of us automatically give an answer when asked a question, which reinforces traditional leadership. Empowering your employee in this way allows them to find their voice and learn how to navigate uncertainty. Some examples might be:

  • How can I be helpful in this conversation?
  • What solutions have you tried so far?
  • Where do you have flexibility to pivot/recreate?
  • What does success look like on this project?a
  • Who else might have information that can help you with this?
A room of people seated at several tables watching a slideshow presentation and listening to a speaker.

In Disability Lead's retreat for the Institute, we utilized DiSC® to explore how we embody our different leadership styles. DiSC® is a behavioral assessment tool based on Dr. William Mouston Marston’s DISC theory, which proposes that each person’s personality consists of a unique blend of four major personality traits: dominance (D), influence (I), steadiness (S), and conscientiousness (C). For example, a person might have dominance as their primary trait, conscientiousness as their secondary trait, with steadiness and influence trailing as their more minor traits, and this specific combination that informs their everyday behavior and interactions. Taking into account someone’s DISC assessment allows for effective navigation of their actions, reactions, preferences, avoidances, abilities, and weaknesses. Leading from behind is an opportunity to take your employee’s leadership style into account and tailor the feedback and coaching that you will share to help them succeed.

A key component to the success of leading from behind is your ability to listen fully to what is being said. Half-listening to the speaker while generating a list of solutions to the problem will not generally build problem-solving skills and independence in that colleague. Stay focused on what is being said and notice the body language and facial expressions during the conversation. This can help you identify the scope and intensity of the issue so that you can tailor your questions and suggestions accordingly.

“A key component to the success of leading from behind is your ability to listen fully to what is being said.”

This is a set of skills that work outside of work as well. The people in our personal lives can also benefit from your listening, asking questions, and supporting their ideas and dreams.

Cynthia S. Aaronson is an Organizational Consultant and Facilitator. She is the owner of CSA & Associates, an organizational consulting firm and a Managing Partner in Milestone Partners formed in 2004. She has over 20 years experience as both an internal and external consultant. Her work focuses primarily on leadership, teamwork, and coaching.

Ms. Aaronson has extensive experience in working with groups on Diversity and Inclusion, Communication Skills, Management and Leadership Development, Customer Service, Team Development, Multi-Generational Teams and Conflict Management in a wide range of organizations including Higher Education, Professional Services Firms, Manufacturing, Financial Services, Associations, and HealthCare.