The Seven Deadly Sins of Transition: A Series

By: John Hotson,
Business Transition Alliance Co-Founder

Deadly Sin #2: Lead by Example

In our introduction to this series we talked about how owners who have built up a successful business have worked hard on seven good habits that have served  them well in developing their business. Now however they need to undo and rework those good habits if they are to successfully transition the business, either through a sale or hand-off to family.

The second habit that business owners have developed in building a successful business and now have to undo is “Lead By Example”

 In achieving their transition they must now begin to “Lead From Behind”.

Leading From Behind means that the owner must step back when the group or organization is moving forward together, and step in only when there is need for him/her to lead from the front (IE set Vision, course correct).

At the heart of the idea of leading from behind is the empowerment of other actors to do your bidding.

Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom) described it this way:

“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.”

The most effective transitioning owners lead from behind, not from the front. They recognize that the next generation of managers and owners are very different from themselves and previous generations.

Leading from behind doesn’t mean abrogating your leadership responsibilities. After all, the shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off course or into danger – it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius. Doing so entails two primary responsibilities — and they are not easy to get right.

  • First, owners must ensure their organization is willing to innovate. This is fundamentally about building community. Some refer to this function as “creating a world to which people want to belong.” In these communities, people are valued for who they are and have the opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves. These communities have a common purpose, values and rules of engagement about how people should interact and problem-solve together. A shared purpose brings the people together and makes them willing to do the hard work of innovation.
  • Second, owners must build the organizational capabilities necessary for engaging in the innovation process. The three essential organizational capabilities are: creative abrasion (the ability to generate ideas through intellectual discourse and debate); creative agility (the ability to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit); and creative resolution (the ability to make decisions in an integrative manner).

Those who are exceptional at leading from behind are likely to be different than those who excelled at leading from the front. And this raises the question: are we identifying and developing the leaders who can tap the power of collective genius?

ICE (Innovate, Create, and Educate)

 Owners can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute but building communities that can innovate. Of course, owners do need to act as direction-setters and vision-makers, but too often these skills are emphasized at the expense of others that are growing in importance. If you’re looking for innovation, it doesn’t make much sense to say that the owner’s job is to set the course and mobilize people to follow them there. If you want your team to produce something truly original – almost by definition you don’t know where you’re going, – you must lead from behind. The traditional leadership model just doesn’t work.

Next 30 days: Task your leadership team to use the ICE methodology (Innovate, Create, and Educate) to build an innovation process within the company by working on a specific initiative as determined by you. Discipline yourself to allow the process to take its own course and allow it to wander. Nudge it back on track if it is clearly is going nowhere. Review the outcome with the team and apply the learning to the next innovation opportunity.

  • Reference:
    • Harvard Business Review
    • Creativity Inc. – Ed Catmull
    • Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandella
    • Nudge – Thaler and Sunstein

About John Hotson:

John is a seasoned marketing and communications professional. He has worked as both a business owner and advisor to owners who are committed to improving the value of their business. John is a co-founder of The Business Transition Alliance.


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