Nick's Blog

Leading from Behind

The local elections of 2017, curiously and unusually in the middle of a general election campaign, are causing a problem for the main political parties. For each it is different. At the time of writing the Conservatives are doing very well, but keen to play down their success for fear of complacency setting in amongst their supporters, who may then not turn out to vote at the General Election feeling that it is all over. For Labour the message is that they have not been wiped out, so it’s still worth voting for them.

In a roundabout way this reminded me of some research I was involved in, more than 10 years ago. The findings were that CIOs needed to lead change in their organisation through the use of technology but that, in those days, CIOs who got in front of their business colleagues in such matters had a shorter tenure in role than those who lagged. Yet the greatest complaint of business colleagues at the time was that their CIOs were to fixated on running the existing systems and slowed down change – something that remains, in places, to this day. We discovered there were a significant group of CIOs who had great influence and also remained in post, and found that they worked primarily through others, rather than taking a visible leadership role themselves.

We described this with the phrase “leading from behind”, a phrase I still like. The point is that to make any change you need to get a group of people onside to lead the change, recognising that the majority of people will go along with things and a minority will always oppose it. Rather than be out front, and pushing a call for change, the recommendation for the CIO in those days was to discretely, behind the scenes, build up a groundswell of support for the proposed change, and, crucially, then allow that to be championed by business. In putting their ego to one side and allowing others to take the credit, the right things would be done for the organisation and the CIO was secure in role – partly because colleagues recognised the contribution the CIO was actually making.

It’s a useful technique on occasion, even today, and, as the Duke of Edinburgh announces his retirement from public engagements, perhaps the phrase “the power behind the throne” is the most appropriate.

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