the Right Place
A popular image has circulated throughout social media for the past few years showing a pack of twenty plus wolves walking through deep snow in a single file line. Within that line you clearly see sub-clusters of wolves that are walking in closer proximity to one another. Thought leaders from around the globe have used this image as an analogy to promote leadership philosophies based on how the wolf pack organizes itself and the positioning of the alpha wolf. The most common interpretation of this image is that the alpha, or leader wolf, is positioned at the back, watching over the pack, and allowing the weaker wolves to set the pace. The fit and youthful wolves gather in the middle section, ready to spring into action if there is an attack from the front, the sides, or the back.
While this analogy may be a nice idea in certain team or organizational contexts, it is not only non-prescriptive for all leadership contexts and situations, it also happens to not be the actual behavior of wolf packs. In reality, the alpha wolf positions itself in various locations within the pack based on what the pack is doing or where leadership is most needed, which is usually at the front of the pack.
This picture has been used to promote servant leadership by advocating that wise and humble leaders lead from the back, always and forever, amen. Unfortunately, I believe this paints an inaccurate picture of servant leadership. We live in a day in which we desire simplistic leadership concepts that help us understand more about how to lead. We want concepts that can be applied at all times and in all contexts. However, I think all of us know that there is not a “silver bullet” leadership approach that always applies. While there are leadership principles and philosophies we can apply at all times (thinking others first, valuing results and relationships, servant leadership, etc.), leadership is more complex than a standard of “leading from the back” at all times.
Real leadership necessitates nuances depending on the situation, such as who you are leading and for what purpose you are leading.
This is why I believe leadership requires discernment. Sometimes, being the best leader means being out front: pulling the lines, inspiring the troops, blazing the trail. Other times, being the best leader means giving others the opportunity to be in front, letting the team set the pace, stepping back and watching over the team while they forge the path with your vision and direction. You may often find that being the best leader means getting your hands dirty by leading through example as you do the work alongside the team members.
Leadership Requires Situational Awareness and Discernment
Ask yourself, “When does serving the team mean that I lead from the front? When does serving the team mean that I lead from the back? And, when does serving the team mean that I lead from the middle?” In all of these situations, you should still be leading. Position your leadership influence in the place that serves the organization, the team, and the individuals in the best way possible. Doing what’s best means humbly positioning yourself where you add the most value, not an always-and-forever positioning that misses the opportunity to provide what’s best in each and every moment.
The following are examples and areas in which leadership is more desirable in the front, the back, or the middle of the pack:
- When there is ambiguity, leaders may need to lead from the front. They may need to show people the way, not merely tell people the way. When new endeavors are underway or we are forging paths never explored, people may need to see their leaders providing guidance and direction. At times, leaders need to forge the path, packing down the snow for others to know the way and to have an easier time moving forward.
- When there is clear direction and capable people in place, leaders may need to lead from the back. This position gives them the ability to watch over the team and identify threats from all directions. Leading from the back of the pack allows the leader to get his or her head up and look to the future, not just manage the now. It gives them a vantage point from which to see up-and-coming leaders begin to grow.
- When the team needs more coaching, encouragement, and support, leaders may need to lead from the middle. There are very few things that minister to teams and build healthy culture like a leader who is present within the grind of the day-to-day. This does not mean you always do the work alongside the team. But, from time to time, leaders have to get into the work itself and lead from the middle. This builds empathy and helps the individual team members feel seen and that their work is valued.
Understand Where to Add Value as a Leader
Here are some basic questions that we need to ask ourselves to make sure we are leading from the right position. These questions can reveal whether we are paying attention to the needs of the team, help us recognize the effects of our positioning on the team, and understand what our motivation is for our leadership approach altogether:
- Is my current positioning/approach serving others well — allowing individuals and the team to thrive — and is the mission being accomplished?
- Which position/approach would add the most value right now? What is most needed now? Should I reposition myself for better results and relationships?
- Is my current positioning/approach more about me and my comfort or about the team and the mission? Am I doing just what’s natural for me, or am I doing what’s best for the team?
Pursue What’s Best
The past wolf pack analogies are not without value; leading from the back of the pack is a great idea . . . in the right context. Servant leaders don’t merely place themselves at the back as a default; yet, they do always position themselves to serve in the best interests of the team. Servant leaders are not door mats; they are guides. Servant leaders place themselves in the positions that serve the mission, the team, and the individuals in the most meaningful and effective ways. True leadership is not about what’s most comfortable; it’s about pursuing what’s best. And pursuing what’s best may mean that we need to move to the front, the back, or the middle.