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Thursday, 3 December, 2020
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Leading from behind

When leading from behind is the only option; Maverick resistance can erode the overconfidence of groupthink.

Great writers intentionally sprinkle their narratives with contradictions. They seek not to confuse, but to compel readers to look beneath the surface, to think deeply, to search for resolutions that reveal deeper truths.

History’s first great literary work is the Bible, which liberally employs this same stylistic technique. Consider the following:

“You shall not follow the majority to do evil” Exodus 23:2

The verse contains its own conundrum. It is only to do evil that we are warned not to follow the majority, which implies the opposite as well: our moral default should be, it seems, to follow where the majority leads.

But who decides what is evil? Once the majority has spoken, does my own moral sensitivity give me licence to reject their voice? If every individual is free to disregard the will of the many, what happens to the cohesion necessary for any community to survive and thrive?

This is the challenge of ethical living. It’s relatively easy to choose right over wrong when the options are black and white. Choosing between shades of grey is far more complicated.

STAND YOUR GROUND

Leading from behind? Perhaps once in a lifetime, circumstances arise that call on us to save the world by turning the world upside down: the great flood; the Tower of Babel; the American and French revolutions. As a rule, however, undermining the foundations of any system or community virtually guarantees we will end up doing more harm than good.

So how does a maverick leader respond to ethical injustice sanctioned by the majority?

Don’t follow.

The majority will go their own way no matter what you do. But you have an ethical imperative to stand your ground and speak out, to sharpen your arguments, to refine your articulation and persevere in your objections.

The tyranny of the majority is a natural byproduct of groupthink. The fear of speaking out, whether against the one or the many, silences reasoned debate and creates a false sense of confidence. Unanimity gives rise to the Illusion of rational consensus, making it all too easy for the collective to march boldly forth over the precipice of folly. Leading from behind?

Ideally, your job as a leader is to lead from the front, to show the way and inspire genuine confidence by stepping forward according to your own counsel and conviction. But sometimes the only way forward is to lead from behind, to stand firm in your resolution that the road to success lies in a different direction.

This is not accomplished by open rebellion. Rather, the Socialised Maverick [1] opts for quiet resistance, refusing to walk the misguided path no matter how certain the majority may be of their own convictions.

LEADING FROM BEHIND – THE DANGER OF UNANIMITY

Some 2000 years ago, in capital cases like murder or kidnapping and enslavement, the Judean system of justice administered execution only after adjudication by the High Court of 23 sages. A supermajority of 13 guilty votes was required to put any defendant to death.

Astonishingly, if all 23 sages voted unanimously to convict, the death penalty was suspended. Intuition suggests that a unanimous vote provides the highest assurance of a just verdict. But the sages feared just the opposite.

Without at least one vote for acquittal, the entire court had no choice but to question its own objectivity. A dissenting voice ensured that no argument in the defendant’s favour had been overlooked. Paradoxically, it was the lack of unanimity that gave the court confidence to proceed with the final, irreversible sentence of execution.

In other words, the more we all agree that the way forward is obvious, the more likely it is that we have failed to contemplate some potential pitfall.

When you present an unwavering voice of reasoned disagreement, you may not win over the crowd, regardless of how compelling your logic or your passion. But you might plant enough seeds of doubt in enough minds to weaken the decisiveness of the majority. Others who had been too timid to express their own concerns and objections might then begin asking questions themselves. Those questions may become the pinpricks that ultimately puncture the illusion of confidence and lead to thoughtful reconsideration.

And even if your argument does not carry the day, at least you will have shifted the mindset of the majority from irrational exuberance to caution and circumspection.

Leading from behind can be the only option.

Successful leaders empower and enable others to develop and realise their own potential. Ethical leaders encourage and inspire others to more accurately calibrate their own moral compasses. Like Socrates, they neither preach nor pander, neither cajole nor bully. Instead, they ask insightful questions that guide others toward reaching more ethical conclusions.

By doing so, those whom they guide become more invested in the conclusions they have reached, while developing the mental muscles that will guide them toward more ethical decisions down the road.

Footnote

[1] Germain, J. (2017): “The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Power Behind Successful Leaders”, PublishNation

Yonason Goldsonhttps://www.yonasongoldson.com/
Yonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC, teaching professionals how good ethics is good business and the benefits of intellectual diversity. He’s a keynote speaker, TEDx presenter, community rabbi, recovered hitchhiker, and author of “Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages.” Visit him at https://www.yonasongoldson.com/

3 COMMENTS

  1. Such an interesting take on leading from behind. My thoughts have always been that leading from behind is more of a leader style that puts others first, presented in this way it is similar and simply someone willing to not adhere to the status quo. To believe in their thought process so much that they are not willing to betray it. Putting others first as a leader style is VERY different than the type-A personalities that dominate the leadership realm, however it works for those that equally believe in themselves as much as this…and in the process they win people over and create doubt similarly. Great connection, thank you for this thought today!

    • Hi Foley

      Thank you for your thoughts, I agree the domineering style of leadership is not sufficient for leading in the 21st Century.

      Maverick Leadership considers the greater good as well as serving others – especially from an ethical standpoint.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Foley. I’ve understood leading from behind as a pejorative — waiting to hear what is popular (think political polling) and then declaring a position that will resonate with the majority because it’s the majority opinion, as opposed to convincing the majority to follow the path that’s best for all.

      Leaders who impose their will are authoritarian. Leaders who pander to popular opinion are not leaders. Leaders should build consensus where they can, resist the tyranny of the majority where they must, and stand apart to protest the inertia of popular opinion when the majority refuse to listen to sound counsel.

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