“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur.” – Nelson Mandela
I just so love this quote by Mandela one of history’s truly great legendary and inspiring leaders. This guiding principle is what no doubt helped Mandela lead South Africa towards the democracy it is today, even from behind the secluded prison bars of Robbin Island.
Leading from behind is one of the most effective, rewarding and empowering leadership strategies. It goes against the traditional image we hold of great leaders, leading the troops from the front by setting the example.
As a coach during a 2016 training camp for multi-day racing and specifically the Marathon des Sables (here), I had the opportunity to put this into practice. Marathon des Sables or “MDS” as it is affectionately called by most aficionados is a gruelling self-sufficiency multi-stage running event which takes place every year in April in the Sahara. The event is celebrating its 31st year this year and will gather over 1300 international participants at the start line on 8 April. Participants are required to carry a minimum weight of 6.5kg with a minimum calorie allowance of 2000Kcal/day covering a total distance of 250km with temperatures exceeding 45C over dunes, jebels and scorched sun-dried salt lakes.
The pre-race training camp last week in Lanzarote provided participants with an opportunity to run long distances on consecutive days in the heat and on demanding terrain simulating that encountered in the Sahara. It also allowed them to test their equipment and exchange with coaches on nutritional and hydration strategies.
Attendees were divided into groups of differing ability depending on the objectives they had set themselves.
“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” — Sam Walton
Coaching one of the groups provided me with one of the most insightful weeks on leadership, mentoring and providing feedback. How do you support and develop each participant in the group giving them the self-confidence to learn and grow? This is where leading from behind comes in. At times I would be running ahead setting the pace. Then I would slow down and run in the group egging them on to the next landmark. Other times I would drop down to the back of the pack and let them set the pace. After all isn’t it all about a balance between pushing people outside their comfort zone because you know this is what will help them have the strength to face adversity in the challenge they have set themselves? Then again you also need to be there to monitor their progress and not push them beyond their limits or dampen their enthusiasm. A fine line!
A good leader is also a good listener. Managers are advised to listen 70% and speak 30% when providing feedback. It is surprising what you learn from coachees when you listen actively. I learnt a wealth of useful information listening to each participant in my run group. Listening gave me a better understanding of the difficulties of each and everyone: ranging from juggling personal and professional commitments to finding the time to train, fitting training around consecutive business trips, adopting a healthy nutritional strategy with a demanding work schedule and business dinners, dealing with sports injuries due to increased mileage, apprehension of the unknown, fear of failure, professional stress impacting on training performance…the list is endless. But listening helped me to be specific in my advice.
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” — Rosalynn Carter
A leader should also enhance competitiveness. Many in my group had set out with the objective of completing Marathon des Sables and getting that beautiful big shiny medal handed over to them by the race Director Patrick Bauer, ticking MDS off on their bucket-list of ultra-running achievements and adding it to their run CV. I know the runners in my group will cross that finish line but I also know that they can achieve much more. They showed that tenacity, grit and determination in training that will take them to the finish line at MDS.
“The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men, the conviction and the will to carry on.” – Walter Lippman
And so my final message to my coachees after a week of learning from them about leadership, mentoring and providing feedback is:
“I won’t be there with you at the start-line although I’d love to be but I will be be tracking your progress live on-line and living every minute of the MDS experience with you.” – Niandi
If you would like to join our 2017 Multi-Day Training Camp, please go HERE
View images from 2016 HERE
View daily images and summaries from 2016 HERE