DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Leading From Behind: Leadership for Innovation

Written by: on November 15, 2016

Leadership for innovation is more about leading from behind than leading from the front. It is about shaping individual and collective experiences to foster innovation rather than about setting direction and mobilizing people to follow“(Kindle, 7530). 

When you begin to research leadership, there is no shortage of theories, schools of thought and studies. Leadership can be seen in various forms and exemplified in many different ways. The concept of what it means to be a great leader depends on the context from which a person iinnovation-lightbulb-chalkboard-shutterstock165062-crop-600x338s required to lead. What can be said across multiple contexts is that leaders must be effective in their role in whatever capacity needed by the people that they serve. The  Handbook Of Leadership Theory and Practice by  Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana is comprised of 26 chapters each with a scholarly perspective on leadership. In chapter 21-  “Unlocking The Slices of Genius In Your Organization – Leading for Innovation” by Linda Hill, Maurizio Travaglini, Greg Brandeau, and Emily Stecker they discuss their collaborative project focused on leading for innovation.  The art of leadership for innovation is about (1) creating a world to which people want to belong-one in which individuals are affirmed in their identity (unleashing their slices of genius and values) and able to be a part of and contribute to something larger than themselves (harnessing the diverse slices of genius to develop innovative solutions for a collective purpose) and (2) developing the individual and collective capacity for co-design” (7528) Innovation is inspired when people have an environment or community where they have a strong sense of belonging. One that affirms their individual and collective contributions. Where everyone has a common purpose and values.  Innovative communities recognize the talent in everyone and does not focus on the talented few.  The process by which innovation is realized is done through a concept they call co-design.  Co-design is a process by which three core activities are done within a team in tandem with each other- creative abrasion, creative agility and integrative problem solving.

  • Creative abrasion refers to the process of creating a marketplace of diverse ideas, generating as many ideas, options, or alternatives as possible and then refining, editing, and developing those ideas, options, or alternatives” (7569).
  • Creative agility refers to the process of experimentation and iteration that innovation entails“(7581).
  • “[I]ntegrative problem solving refers to the process of taking a systems perspective and using difference and conflict to create a solution in which the whole is truly more than the sum of the parts” (7591).

Although innovation is not absent of challenges and failed experiments this process allows for innovative teams to be agile in their thinking and problem solving.  In doing so, mistakes and failures are seen as learning opportunities.

As a leader within these communities it is imperative to trust and empower the individuals by allowing for innovation to take place from the bottom up.  This is strikingly different than leadership models where the leader is providing direction in a top down management approach. For leaders of innovative teams, structure is not used to control but  as a tool that is used to  promote the core-design process within the organization. To illustrate how this can be done, they used an analogy of a Shepherd. “A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind” (7800). By no means are they inferring that the people within our organizations are mindless sheep but in this analogy the nimble sheep are leading the other sheep. “We need leaders who see their principal role as creating a world or work environment in which others can share their diverse talents and realize their potential for the well-being of the team or organization. It is an acknowledgement that leadership, like the co-design process, is a collective and fluid activity in which different people at different times-depending on their particular slice of genius or “nimbleness”-come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go” (7802).


My reflections 

I am not one who believes all business leadership theories apply in the same way in other leadership contexts. However, I do believe that there are common threads or ideas that can be helpful in how we see ourselves as leaders and therefore, expanding our capabilities and effectiveness. Despite the fact that this research project was focused on leading for innovation within a business, I can’t help but wonder how shifting our leadership paradigm from top down to bottom up could have an impact on our ability to be effective leaders in our ministry contexts.   In ministry, we see our ministry leaders as Shepherd’s that lead from the front. Guiding us in the right spiritual direction. I found it interesting that in this discussion the Shepherd analogy implied that the strength of the Shepherd was not in leading from the front but by guiding from behind.  While reading through this chapter I found myself asking questions. As leaders, are we seeing and affirming the value of everyone and fostering an environment that allows for individual and collective contribution? What would our organizations look like if we created a structure that made room for diverse ideas and creativity? How can our faith communities also be communities of innovation and collaboration? I am challenged in my thinking as I ask these questions. The more I seek out answers the more questions arise.  I do believe that there is something significant about shifting our thinking about leadership as a front or top down approach to a behind and bottom up approach. Leadership is not about controlling the lives of others but it is about fostering an environment that allows for them to grow and live out their God given purpose and potential. “… leaders of today and the foreseeable future must know how to turn their organizations into innovative communities instead of practicing what Gary Hamel has referred to as “creative apartheid”-a scenario where only a few “gifted individuals” are given responsibility for innovation, with the other members of the organization seen as unimaginative.” It is time to recognize that creativity is widely distributed and that innovation comes from nurturing the slice of genius in everyone. The time has come for a revolution in our thinking about what makes an effective leader” (7950).

About the Author

Christal Jenkins Tanks

10 responses to “Leading From Behind: Leadership for Innovation”

  1. Guiding from behind…love this! And yes, innovation is key to leadership. How to harness it and inspire it as leaders is the big question.
    “Leadership is not about controlling the lives of others but it is about fostering an environment that allows for them to grow and live out their God given purpose and potential.” Beautifully put! Thank you for this great reminder.

  2. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “It is time to recognize that creativity is widely distributed and that innovation comes from nurturing the slice of genius in everyone.”

    What a powerful statement. I think that many of our churches have “blown it” in this area, especially ones with a hierarchal structure. Instead of stifling creativity, we would be nurturing it. Good stuff!

  3. Love, love, love this! Thanks for lifting out this important insight…. it definitely is one of the leadership insights from the business world that we can and should adapt for the church.
    I really think that if we are ‘leading’ well, most often we will be seen less and less – instead most of our work happens in the creating of space for others to lead, the work of helping others discover their ‘slice of genius’ and encourage everyone to use and cultivate those gifts.
    I think often well meaning leaders, myself included, fail to do this because of a few reasons: 1 – it is hard work, it’s hard to find these gifts in others and engage people to use them. 2 – It takes advance planning, if you want things to happen quickly it is almost always easier to do it yourself, but that is definitely not the best or most sustainable way to do things. 3 – Letting go of control is hard – leading in this way requires trust in those that you are enabling to lead.

    Thanks again!

    • mm Katy Lines says:

      I like tell groups which I lead that my goal is to do as little work as possible. 😉 That is, I see my role as identifying giftedness and needs, delegating and empowering others to run with responsibility, and then publicly affirming their role in whatever success we see.

  4. Geoff Lee says:

    Yes, some really great insights here. We are called, those of us in church leadership, to equip others and to recognise and release the potential in them. I agree with Chip that this is difficult and time-consuming, and we can buy into the thinking that it is easier and quicker to lead the charge from the front. I think leading from behind is a great thing for a shepherd to do!

  5. Mary Walker says:

    Christal, I had the same exact quote at the top of my paper originally and almost made my post in that direction! I decided to talk about influence instead. Thank you for your reflections on it!
    I agree with Chip, it’s a lot of hard work to encourage everyone to find their gift and use it. I can’t help but think that that is the way the Corinthians (and others) were supposed to be living and working in the Kingdom.
    There’s a possible unfortunate problem. We went to a church once where the pastor did not want to share leadership with anybody. He even changed the definition of “elder” so he wouldn’t have to have any. This is the opposite of encouraging all of the sheep to use their gifts.
    I hope I’m not “reading between your lines” but I also wondered about the Shepherd always being behind. Isn’t He supposed to be protecting the sheep too?
    It was still a great essay and I love your analysis!

  6. We as Christian leaders must relax mentally and physically are we will burn out and destroy the precious jewels he has assigned to us. We must be Shepherds but remember that we are also sheep. We must be honest about our strengths and challenges and not cover them up by being aggressive in all areas of our lives.
    I agree that we must foster others, it’s how Jesus did it.

  7. mm Katy Lines says:

    So good, Christal! I think you are absolutely right to suggest that it “depends on the context from which a person is required to lead.” There are times when we need someone pulling us forward (leading from the top). However, I can’t help but land on and affirm the Shepherd metaphor of “not leading from the front but by guiding from behind,” which “recognizes the talent in everyone.” This week our church is in the process of identifying people who are qualified to serve as elders. I appreciate the way our church goes through this process, but I wonder if there are better ways of organizing a congregation than just hiring staff and naming elders, while everyone else remains nameless. Can the leading-from-behind Shepherd be an opportunity for us to re-imagine how our little congregational parts of the Body of Christ are organized???

  8. “Creative apartheid.” YES! Innovation is hard because creativity is tamped down and even discouraged from the time most of us get through elementary school, unless we are lucky enough to have teachers, parents, and/or mentors who believe in creativity. In business, innovation equals failure after failure after failure until finally we succeed. Unfortunately, so many see this as way too many “strikes” against a leader or team. I love the idea of co-creating because we share the mistakes and failures as one team. I’m not a big fan of hierarchies because there is no way for one person to be the perfect leader all the time. We are created to be a part of a team (the body).

  9. Jim Sabella says:

    Excellent post Christal! Top down, bottom up has always been a discussion in our organizational setting. When I read the beginning of your post the question came to mind, I wonder how Christal would make the bottom up principle work in her setting? Then you answered the question for me. You said…

    “As leaders, are we seeing and affirming the value of everyone and fostering an environment that allows for individual and collective contribution?”

    This is the crux of the matter. “As leaders are we seeing and affirming…?” Leaders need to “foster an environment” where contributions come from all invested players. Lynda makes an excellent point: “We must be Shepherds but remember that we are also sheep.”

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