Leadership from the back of the room

Rachel Perry
Rachel Perry

Rachel Perry

As the campaign rhetoric flies, I’ve been thinking about leadership from a different vantage point. What does leading look like if you’re not in charge?

A memorable book I encountered as a fellow at the Wildacres Leadership Initiative was Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ron Heifetz, who founded the Center for Public Leadership and teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

There’s much to recommend in this book, but one thread is the difference between leadership and authority — the idea that appointed or elected leaders aren’t automatically imbued with true leadership.

It’s a powerful idea, but interpretation depends on perspective.

Most of the fellows in the Wildacres leadership-training program with me were in charge. We oversaw programs, people and organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.  Our view was from the front of the room.

Seven years later, my view has changed.  I work “virtually” for the nation’s largest nonprofit, United Way of America.  It fuels my passion and lets me make a difference – while still making my after-school carpool.

But I am not in charge.  Not in charge of any people, programs or any part of the organization.

So how can I be a leader?  How can I lead when someone else is at the front of the room, and I’m in the back?

Early on, I struggled — especially when my counsel didn’t prevail.  Sometimes I felt resigned, sometimes powerless.  My attitude – and contribution – suffered.

I returned to Heifetz, and followed his advice. I tried to listen more, talk less. I asked questions, facilitated debate and articulated values.

After long days on logic models and theories of change, I summed it all up in a paragraph or sound bite.  While I’d always done some of that, I’d seen it as “gadfly behavior,” not leadership.

Now, I see it as leadership – even if I’m not in charge.

Heifetz’s construct changed my perspective, and I discovered a rewarding way to lead from the back of the room (without having to deal with hiring, firing or annual budgets).

I encourage everyone – not just the team leader but every team member- to remember that you can in fact lead from wherever you are.

Rachel Perry is a communications consultant in Asheville, N.C., who has spent 25 years in North Carolina public affair as a reporter, gubernatorial press secretary, and managing partner of a public relations agency. She is a 1999-2001 Friday Fellow of the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C.

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