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Recently I was discussing with a friend one of my favorite topics…the consigliere. That is the person behind the scenes who gets things done, the leader behind the leader. I was pondering the idea that behind every prominent-out in the spotlight leader there is a person who supports them in a variety of ways from behind the scenes. More specifically, I suggested to my friend that the path to becoming the prominent-out in the spotlight leader should include a stint as the support leader.
My thinking was influenced by my own experience. I am good at supporting my leader. I am loyal to a fault, and thrive on making “it” happen for them. When I find an area where my leader is overwhelmed, extremely focused on something important, or in need of getting something “fixed” I invariably volunteer to take care of it. As my career has advanced and I find myself with more prominent leadership responsibilities, I can’t help but think that part of this growth is a result of my learning how to lead by supporting and thereby learning from my own leaders. By making it happen for them, I discovered how to lead. I was mentored by them, learned from them, and served them fiercely.
I wasn’t explaining myself quite this clearly, but my friend understood my point and still pointed out a potential wrinkle. The question he asked was really quite important. By being the consigliere do you run the risk of getting labeled as the fixer and thus overlooked as the visionary-man-in-charge? In other words, can leading from behind cost you the opportunity of ever leading from the front?
I thought, WOW, that is a great question, and I had to immediately affirm that the risk was real. In fact, I’ve seen it happen. So the question is why does it happen and how can we avoid it?
Personally, I think there are two primary reasons why this happens.
First, we let it happen. Let’s face it, leading from second place can be a pretty safe place. If we do it well, then the leader we support will usually protect us from attack and failure. They will stand out front and take the arrows for us. Unfortunately, they will also stand out front and take the accolades. With great risk comes great rewards. If leading from behind is done to avoid risks, then we should never expect to get the rewards that are rightly associated with leading from the front.
The second factor that contributes to being pigeonholed into the second place leader is the mistake of working for a leader who doesn’t understand or value people development. If your leader doesn’t value you more than his own success, he will simply use you. He’ll feed you treats every now and then, and give you some nice perks, but he won’t work to develop you and advance you. That doesn’t serve him. In his mind, that hurts him. He loses because he loses you. It’s a short term and flawed view of the world, but it is a real one.
So, what to do? First, to the best of your ability pick the right leader to lead. Did you catch that? The leader who leads from behind is leading, and in most cases their leadership is focused on leading their leader, that phenomenon of leading up that all leaders need to get good at. So, pick leaders who value people and people development. Pick leaders that you know are willing to teach you and mentor you along the way, while you serve them and help them succeed. In other words, pick a leader who has the tendencies of a consigliere themselves. They’ve been in your place, they understand your role, they respect your ambitions and they view leadership as a powerful tool to serve others.
Second, take risks. Don’t get comfortable standing in the shadows. Look for opportunities to stand up and project your voice out into the world and be heard. If you’ve picked a good leader to lead, they will look for places to push you out into these risky situations. If you find yourself working for a more self-focused leader, the need to take risks is more acute, and one of the greatest risks you have to take is to step out in front of or away from your leader. She may not appreciate it, but leadership isn’t always popular and is fraught with risks. If you want the rewards of leading from the front, you’ll have to take the risk of upsetting some people, even the person in front of you.
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