Being a leader is a big, complicated job. Even with years of practice, there are new teams to figure out, new challenges to overcome, new techniques to apply.

And yet a lot of people are still promoted to positions of leadership because they perform well as individual contributors.

But should someone who is a great writer be promoted to manage a whole staff of writers because she is great at writing? Should someone who is good at financial analysis be expected to lead an entire team based on his skill as an analyst? Why would we assume that doing one job well predicts success in an entirely different capacity?

Maybe we don’t.

If we recognize that leadership can be practiced, with or without a formal position, then it actually becomes possible to prepare (both ourselves and others) to lead — before being called into leadership, with its title, its power, and its consequences.

Leading from behind takes patience

For starters, what does it mean to lead informally, or lead from behind? Titles do carry weight (and different responsibilities), so it’s necessarily going to be different from leading as a manager, a director, or a VP.

If we compare their key advantages and limitations, we can see how and why formal and informal leadership fundamentally differ:

Formal Informal
Advantage You can command the attention of your team. Based on your position, you’re empowered to set direction, assign work, and make unpopular decisions. The team is expected to follow. As an equal member, you’re in a position to get full disclosure from others on the team. You get a direct and clear view into what’s actually happening, what’s working, and what’s not.
Limitation It’s difficult to get real and unfiltered feedback from your team. Nobody wants to be the messenger — most people will hold back what feels bad and emphasize the good. You can’t really compel anyone to do something they disagree with, no matter how brilliant your ideas are. You have to work at building belief and rallying agreement.

The informal leader’s greatest asset is an undistorted perspective. You’re out of the spotlight and you can see things that may be obscured from a formal leader’s point of view. Leading from behind becomes effective when you find the real points of leverage on the team — you learn which tiny, almost undetectable adjustments have the potential to create much bigger shifts over time.

The challenge, of course, is that not being a leader with a capital L means people won’t always listen to what you have to say. You might have to fight to make yourself heard. This can make even small things feel slow, especially in the short term.

How to practice leadership, informally

Informal leadership happens for different reasons. Maybe someone really wants to build their leadership skills. Maybe they’re just a great team player. But if you want to practice leading from behind, with intention, start by noticing and articulating the challenges the team is facing. Is the team spinning? Try being a really good first follower — the person who is decisive in rallying behind whoever makes the first bold move. Is the team struggling? Work on supporting, nurturing, and coaching to raise confidence and morale. Being a leader is about being able to recognize what the situation calls for and showing up in a suitable way.

In addition to practice — trying, failing, succeeding, trying again — leadership involves reflection and introspection. Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do I want to lead? Why do I want to lead? What do I want? How much do I want it and why? If I am leading a group that wants something different from what I want, am I willing to forgo my own interests and honor my commitment to the group?

Like any discipline, developing leadership requires us to integrate practice as well as reflection — not just on the role we have in a workplace but on how that role fits in with our full lives and whole identities.

Informal leaders: Now you see them, now you don’t

In his book Liminal Thinking, Dave Gray tells the story of Chris Ortiz, who worked in an office that felt really unsafe for most people. So he put a tea kettle in his cubicle and invited people for tea. Being involved in major change processes in the company, people would come to him with all kinds of problems and issues. By getting people to slow down and have tea, he could listen much more deeply and carefully and get a much better understanding of the real issues.

Leading from behind is usually marked by this kind of quiet but impactful work. It can be hard to recognize as leadership because we’re not used to looking for it. Socially and culturally, we’re still used to imagining a stereotypical leader — powerful speeches, inspiring visions, heroic deeds. So how do you identify who is leading from behind and may be ready to step up to the stage, when most of the time you only see the star performer who’s been cast in the spotlight?

Start by finding that spotlight. And then look more closely at the shadows around it. Watch for small actions that have big impact but unclaimed credit. Talk to the team and see who people turn to for help. Informal leaders have to rely on action, not being seen and heard. They bring value by prioritizing collective goals over their personal interests. They earn their team’s recognition through a willingness to do what’s needed for the team to succeed.


Are your leadership skills up to date? Check in on your leadership practice and learn where you can grow with Leadfully’s 21st-Century Leadership Assessment.

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