Leadership from the Back

My friends and I just completed one of the most physically demanding horseback adventures we have ever done, which is saying a lot after participating in ten rides across the world in the last eight years. We were in the Parc Naturel Regional Morvan. It is like a national park in the Burgundy area of France. For seven straight days we rode 25-30 miles on high stamina endurance horses across forests, hills and through small villages. Exhilarating!

Typically, I ask for a forward horse. That means one that moves out freely—walks fast, canters fast, and is energetic going down the trail. I love to look over the top of the next hill; to see out the “front windshield” and observe all that mother nature is offering. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I am always thinking about what is around the next corner and often get there before others do. Yet on this trip no one asked me what type of horse I wanted to ride, and I was assigned Easy. Yes, Easy. Now, Easy is a beautiful gray Arab that has completed 100-mile races. He is no slouch! He was energetic at the trot and the canter and even won a short 20-second impromptu race. But his natural walk was an ambling gait that kept him in the back of a single file line of nine horses. That means you have no idea what is going on in the front. You can’t see what is next and you certainly don’t set the pace.

How does one lead in those circumstances? Easy taught me that there is more than one way to lead. He was indeed a leader if I would adapt to his skills. As leaders, we tend to define high performance or leadership characteristics in ways that are comfortable for us or reflect our preferred experiences. After two days of riding Easy and not being thrilled at being in the back, my friends encouraged me to ask for a different horse. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it because Easy was, well, easy. He had no bad manners, he did everything asked, and he never fell behind when the group was challenged to move forward at a faster pace. In fact, he was almost effortless. My job as a leader was to let him do his job which he knew so well. My job as a leader was to allow him to do his job in a manner that showcased his strengths. 

How often do we have employees in the company that are not flashy or highly visible but are doing their job at a high level, quietly, without being asked? They are likable and easy to get along with. Do they get overlooked because they don’t speak up as much in meetings even though when they do they bring good ideas to the table? I am not just talking about someone who comes in, checks the boxes, stays in their lane, and heads out at 5:00. What I am describing is someone who excels but doesn’t do it in an attention-seeking way. Easy was a great horse. No vices. No challenges. Always ready to do his job and then some. He just didn’t walk fast. 

My youngest son had that reputation throughout his athletic career. He wasn’t a talker, had no ego and was an unimposing physical specimen—skinny as a rail. But he is a gifted athlete. The other teams never feared him. Yet he was a twelve letterman in high school and named Missouri high school athlete of the year. In college, he started at second base for Vanderbilt University and earned Freshman All-American status and continued as a starter the rest of his career there, helping take Vandy to their first ever College World Series in 2011. He was esteemed as a great team player, the best bunter on the team, and a clutch hitter, almost always named to post season honor teams and hitting .600 in post season play his senior year. Yet he was told he had David Eckstein syndrome. The kind of player that is easily undervalued because he makes it look too easy. His plays didn’t make it to the highlight reel. He never had to do acrobatics to make a play because he was fast enough to just get to the ball. Others enjoyed making the game look exciting—diving for routine balls, stomping on home plate when they scored, swinging for the fences, preferring to strike out over a base hit. Although sabermetrics would tell you my son was a very valuable player, traditional scouting looks for the “power five”—the things that make a game exciting, like home runs—even though they don’t correlate to wins. These quiet kinds of leaders can be underappreciated by traditional measures but needed in the trenches.

Easy was a winner. He taught me to slow down and watch the line ahead, observing people, riders, terrain, and other things that shared much insight on the horses, riders, and their skills. We were able to observe the entire “field” that way and take more in. Easy reminded me that not all leaders need to be heroes. They need to do their job effortlessly and add value to the team by not imposing on others–no kicking or biting other horses for him. Always ready to move out when the group did.

When we lead from the back, we not only get a different perspective of the team, but we can “slow down the play”, a term athletes use to describe the ability to see a play unfold and to be hyper focused on their reaction. For a baseball player it is reading the pitch, for an offensive football player it is reading the way the defensive line will move in anticipation of finding a hole to penetrate. Those skills help us win and achieve high performance. 

This trip was a great reminder to me that you can’t just lead from the front. Sometimes you need to be in the back, to take things in, to appreciate the quiet leaders who aren’t searching for stardom but are adding important value in ways that don’t make the ESPN top ten plays of the week. We need more of them in our business and when we have them, we need to be sure that we treat them as the valuable asset they are. Thanks, Easy!

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