Management literature is full of books by leaders who ‘led from the front’, ‘took bullets to their chest’. But there is a different mode of thought that has been finding favour with management theorists. Do all successful leaders lead from the front? Is there a different way of leadership? Bill George, the legendary CEO of Medtronics, in his book Authentic Leadership speaks about leading with compassion and heart, not just bravery and courage. And in his article on ‘Level 5 Leadership’, Prof Jim Collins [HBR July-Aug 2005] says that a Level 5 leader demonstrates the triumph of humility and fierce resolve.

Ravi Kant is a leader of exemplary track record and this reviewer has had the privilege of working with him, and has had the benefit of his wisdom. Kant could have written a book about his achievements as the MD / CEO of Tata Motors. Indeed the company underwent a huge transformation during his leadership. But instead of writing about his personal achievements, Kant has chosen to tell us a story with the help of experienced storyteller authors [Harry Paul and Ross Reck].

Why a story? It has been proven that some of the most perceptive management theories are best explained through simple parables or stories. Eliyahu Goldratt explained the importance of operational efficiency and constraints through his parable ‘The Goal’; it brought alive the idea of ‘Theory Of Constraints’.

Kant has told us about his style of management and leadership in this book Leading From The Back, which definitely is not a voluminous management tome, but a slim story. The tale unfolds as the hero, Shiv Kundra, a high performing manager hits a wall. His style of management that focused on controlling every element of the job is found wanting. Projects are falling way behind schedule and are also slated to come in at costs higher than estimated.

Unlocking mental blocks

Fortunately for Shiv he has several well-wishers in the company who decide that he needs serious coaching and mentoring. They send him to a veteran coach, Dev Sharma, who they believe can teach our young hero some new tricks. The book then tells us what Dev Sharma did to unlock Shiv’s mental blocks and helped him understand and apply the power of leading from the back. In the course of the coaching engagement, Dev gets Shiv to meet a few other managers who had applied these principles; I thought the idea of making Dev meet other successful practitioners is an excellent way of gaining conviction and trust from a person who needs to seriously alter his world view.

Kant, or should I say Dev, unveils the magic of ‘leading from the back’ through three simple questions: How should I be? How should I deal with the team? How should I deal with the task?

It all starts with how you should be. You cannot be biased and pre-decide the competencies of those around you. You have to be open minded. You have to assume ownership and also help the team members think and act like owners. Thirdly you have to be detached, instead of micro-managing the team you need to let them figure out what needs to be done. Finally, you have to remember that the credit goes to the team and the failure rests with you.

While dealing with the team, it all starts with building trust, without trust nothing is possible. You need the team to collaborate and help each other. You need to ensure that the team leverages its collective strengths the best possible way.

Finally, you need to decide how to deal with the task. Just because you are leading from the back does not mean that you are soft on targets. You need to test the limits of your team. Bold targets help the team look at out-of-the-box ideas. You have to look outside in and examine how to achieve the target. It is important that the leader needs to be tough but softly. You have to be demanding but stay supportive of the team.

Anecdotal style

The book is a slim volume of just about 140 pages, written in a very readable anecdotal style. There is complete absence of management jargon and the ubiquitous two by two grids or matrices. The book is also replete with simple illustrations to bring alive the many characters featured in the book. Kant’s many years of working in the Tata Group can be surmised from the way all the managers in the illustrations are tie-clad and formally dressed. No T-shirt jeans for Kant.

Irrespective of the size of the team you are leading, be it 6 or 600, you will benefit from reading this book. Two hours invested in this book will pay off many times over as you unlock the secrets of ‘leading from the back’ and apply it to your business.

(The reviewer is a best selling author of 11 books)