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Leading from behind

Back when I was in high school, I attended a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) program in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. As a group of 16 students and 4 guides, we headed into the backcountry for thirty days straight and carried everything we needed on our backs. I learned so much out there in the wilderness - but the most important lessons I learned were about leadership.

I have found that, as a coach, I often bring up a hiking metaphor when talking about leadership with clients. It's a lesson I learned literally out there in the woods - but it absolutely applies to leading a biotech company as well. In fact, I was recently reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown, and was surprised to see that Greg shares an almost identical story to help illustrate the concept of "leading from behind."

Let’s do an exercise together:

Imagine you are hiking with a group of 20 people in the woods and you are their leader. Where do you stand? Are you in the front of the line, in the back, or somewhere else?

There are real advantages to being in the front of the line. You can see obstacles before anyone else, you can make sure your group is on track, and you can set the pace for everyone.

The problem with being in front, though, is that the fastest hikers will stay close to you - but you will have no way of knowing how far behind the slowest person is. Some of your team could get lost when the group, inevitably, gets separated. What if someone gets injured and you’re plugging away blissfully unaware?

Let’s imagine, instead, that you decide to take the caboose. By standing at the rear of the line, you are able to ensure that no one lags too far behind; you have the advantage of being able to see everyone in front of you. You can offer insights that the rest of the group can’t see because you have a different perspective. If anyone gets hurt or runs out of supplies, they know they can pull off to the side and wait for you to get there. Maybe you even carry extra water, food, and medical supplies to make sure you’re ready to support anyone who needs it along the way.

When we take our ego and put it aside, we have the capacity to serve as a leader. When we are not in the spotlight - in the front - we begin to see how our role is about helping other people shine.

It is about setting the tone, inspiring others, and knowing how to leverage the talent on your team. When you’re not pulling along behind you, the magic starts to happen. Individuals become a team; you are the glue and the rudder.


If you are going to be the last person in the hiking line, then who should be the first person leading the line? Do you put your fastest, strongest hiker in front? How will this set-up avoid the same sets of problems we had before?

No doubt it will take only minutes for the group to be separated if you put your strongest hiker in the front. Even if this person waits and pauses every hour for everyone to catch up, the morale will likely get quite low in the middle and the back of the line. It can really crush your team’s spirit to have the speed demons leading. Despite the best of intentions, they never seem to wait long enough for the others to fully recover before they begin to sprint again. This culture ends up burning out the middle and bottom performers.

What happens if you put the slowest person in the front?

With your slowest hiker in the front, the group does effectively stay together. But…you’ve also limited everyone’s capacity to your slowest hiker’s pace. Your team morale will suffer if everyone is stuck moving at a painfully slow pace behind your weakest teammate.

What if, instead, you pulled your slowest hiker aside and asked them: "What do you need in order to be your very best self on this hike?"

What if you could increase this person’s speed by 20% by taking heavy items out of their backpack and distributing them across the rest of your team? Maybe you learn that this person’s shoes are creating blisters and your teammates swap shoes to empower this person to walk pain-free and faster?

What if, in addition to speeding up your slowest hiker, you empower your entire team by aligning them on a shared destination - or set of goals? When everyone knows where you’re going and the route you’re taking to get there, ownership is equally shared of the journey.

Maybe you pull the team together around a map before you begin, anticipate challenges ahead of time, and brainstorm solutions. Like, perhaps there’s a tough river crossing up ahead and you all decide to pair your heaviest and lightest hikers to cross, together, to ensure no one gets pulled upstream. What if you decide the river is simply too rough and you change course and add a bit more mileage in order to reduce risk?

Exceptional leadership is about knowing how to get your team to their destination on time - or even ahead of schedule. You need to be strategic and proactive. By knowing your teammates individually, you know how to leverage their strengths and talents. You also know who on your team is going to need additional support.

I know a biotech company isn’t exactly the same as hiking in Wyoming, but I think you get the metaphor here - and all of the connections to proactive goal setting, pre-mortem meetings, change management and such. Happy "trails," y'all!


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