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Peter A. Kerr: Leading the charge -- from behind

Leadership doesn’t always mean being out in front, says a professor of communications at Asbury University. He offers three suggestions for sharing power with followers.

iStock/Rafal Olkis

July 17, 2012

At the Air Force Academy I was taught that effective leaders lead from the front. They demonstrate courage by surging forward and yelling, “Charge!” Our studies focused on how to lead people we outranked, people who looked up to us for direction and who trusted our judgment. Church leaders often expect similar situations.

Yet this context for leadership has actually occurred only a few times in my life. Even in the military, I was often paired with noncommissioned officers who were older and wiser than I was. And certainly in my leadership experience after military service, I have mostly been called to lead people who are older than I and who have more experience, knowledge and “relationship capital.”

Church leaders may find themselves in this situation as well. They are often tossed into a setting where they are expected to lead a board or a staff in which the youngest member could be their parent.

So how do we adapt our leadership styles to meet these challenges and effectively lead the charge -- from behind?

Drawing from my experience in the military and in an academic setting, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to lead from behind.

Know what skills you have and delegate others to use their skills as well. When I worked at the Pentagon as a captain, I received a call at 4 a.m. one Sunday in June 2004. President Ronald Reagan had died, and I was the lucky guy selected to lead media relations for the funeral ceremonies in Washington, D.C.

I thought it was an odd job for someone of my rank, since I was pretty much the lowest-ranking Pentagon lackey. And when I showed up for work at 5:30 a.m., I discovered that a mistake had indeed been made. They were expecting someone much more senior. Instead of senior leadership, they had me in charge. I found that while there were some enlisted specialists, most of the folks on my team were equal to me in rank.

Things were already getting hectic -- thousands of journalists were converging on D.C. -- so I simply stepped in and took charge. I knew that what was really needed wasn’t rank but organization and planning, which are my strengths.

I divided up the 30-person team into day and night shifts and began assigning people various duties such as answering phones, researching queries and planning events. We quickly built an atmosphere that de-emphasized rank and elevated camaraderie and performance.

I knew that people on my team had better skills than I did in key areas, so I quickly got to know my followers and placed them where they could perform best.

This experience showed me that while leaders must strive to understand every task under their purview, they should also recognize when followers have greater competencies and must be willing to delegate accordingly.

In a church setting, the way for leaders to ensure that everyone is working from their strengths is to get to know their people well. Ask followers or board members what excites them, when they most felt effective for Christ, and whom they think should be invited to perform a certain task.

Adopt a leadership style that empowers others. In my current position as director of the communications program at Asbury University, I serve with two professors whose children are older than I am.

I quickly learned that when I disagreed with them, I should ask questions rather than make statements. Instead of saying, “That’s wrong,” I say, “I thought it should be this way -- can you explain what you’re thinking?”

Instead of directing, I make suggestions. And instead of dictating a new course, I offer options and let them discuss and choose the best path ahead. Instead of telling them what to do, I explain the problem and my initial impression of what the solution should be, and then ask for their input.

Not only does this ease the awkwardness of directing people older than myself; it gives me the opportunity to learn from their wisdom and experience.

In a church setting, this might mean offering senior board members multiple options instead of a single path. When followers have motivation and skills, delegating can result in greater performance and increased job satisfaction, and can free you up to maximize your own areas of expertise, according to Lynn Offermann, an organizational expert at George Washington University.

Realize that often a question gives better direction than an answer, that loving humor can reform more swiftly than direct rebuke, and that being a servant-leader often means doing what no one else wants to do rather than delegating the less-noble tasks.

Realize that you do not have to treat all followers the same way. While of course we treat everyone with dignity and respect, I have discovered that my relationships with followers depend in large measure upon who they are as individuals.

In his book “The Power of Followership,” Robert Kelley insightfully breaks followers into categories -- star followers, alienated followers, passive followers, yes people, pragmatic followers -- and argues that each follower type should be led in a different way. Leaders should empower stars, try to understand the alienated, guide the passive, direct the yes people, inspire the pragmatic.

My experience of “leading from behind” has made me understand that leadership is a shared endeavor.

This isn’t always easy; leading from behind requires humility, as a leader must acknowledge when followers are better at particular tasks. There have been situations, for example, in which my followers were better at everything except the menial jobs, where my younger back offered superior performance. So I did the physical task, knowing that other people were doing the rest better than I could.

I’ve learned to abandon the top-down approach to leadership in favor of a more shared form of power dynamics, and I am now very willing for my followers to teach me new skills.

Instead of being the one who yells, “Charge!” Christian leaders often must be the ones who encourage from the back, who share leadership, who learn while they lead, and who can truly act out Christ’s teaching that “if anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b NASB).