Responsive Leadership – leading from the back to the front


I recently stumbled upon a new label for the behaviours we associate with leadership. In this short clip Nipun Mehta explains a “different paradigm of leadership, which he calls “laddership””.

After rolling the idea around a little I thought I would share some thoughts on how it relates to my experience of leadership and development in schools and beyond.

Laddership refers to the role of the leader. The ladder being like the leader. So that others may climb rungs we might create and reach new heights above us. It reminds me of servant leadership.

This way of thinking is placed in contrast to the “lead from the front” type of ideology, that some might consider to be a traditional leadership paradigm.

In education we can be lulled into thinking that leadership only occurs at the upper echelons of a school administration or in those roles with “leader” in them. The career path is set out in front of many aspiring young leaders and it often only looks like a pyramid. This reflects the typical paradigm of a hierarchy in schools and school systems.

My teaching experience was similar. I was tapped on the shoulder for middle leadership within my first year out of university and the steps up were pretty clear. Maybe you have been presented with a similar direction: “If you want to be a leader follow this traditional path.”

The idea of a ladder for others to progress sits well with me. I now know that such an idea is relevant to anyone aspiring to lead. There are different ways to lead, and many different paths to help others rise above you. Education needs to offer more paths through leadership and not just those that point upwards.

Ultimately we need to put energy into redefining leadership in schools so that more educators understand the impact they can have on others.

I started a blog that shared my ideas, my thinking and my classroom experiences. That helped me understand the impact I could have on others. I realised I could lead in a different way – fast forward a decade and I still keep that idea at the heart of my work. I am leading by creating the conditions for others to progress and develop. It might not say Principal or Headteacher on the office door (I don’t actually have an office door) but I know my work is leadership.

Leadership can be defined in multiple ways depending on the sector or domain it sits within. But also defining leadership within a sector has great contextual dependency too. Education is no different.

The leadership that needs to be shown in the emergency services during the bushfire seasons, here in Australia, is very different to the leadership needed at a K-12 school to develop an innovative culture.

In our attempts to seek out the fundemental truths about leadership perhaps we polarise our thinking too much. We might covet the entrepreneurial mindset in schools and look to business for ideas on development, but we should never forego the intimate understanding of the educational context we work in. Cookie cutters are not a leadership tool.

When we setup Laddership Vs Leadership and suggest a shifting of paradigms, or systems of thought, we create these false dichotomies. So although the idea of creating ladders resonates, I think it is unrealistic to set up competing concepts in this way – a choice we have to make, a move we have to make.

In the Design of Business Roger Martin explains a series of ideas related to design thinking and leadership, for example: exploration Vs exploitation; analysis Vs intuition; originality Vs mastery. You can see the others in the image I have added. But the choice is not “either or”. Creative problem solving requires a range and mixture of different thinking modes at different times. It reminds me to consider the balance of different types of thinking rather than such polarised choices.

Adaptive and responsive leadership perhaps describes this best. In certain situations in schools a “lead from the front” style of leadership is the most appropriate. When there is high urgency for change or important processes that need to be modelled and established. Or when we are attempting to shift ingrained habits and behaviours to something different, maybe “follow me” works best.

That same leadership approach should adapt and respond to the context it is in. As Nipun Mehta explains, shifting to the back and allowing others to push ahead and lead the way. Developmental work in schools often needs people to buy in and have ownership. These are good opportunities for intentional and thoughtful design leadership. The best possible conditions for progress and development are (co)created.

When I am working with teams I am attempting to create these conditions. I use a range of protocols that help establish the expectations for the time together. One of them is about how we each need to take responsibility to balance our participation in the session.

Step up and step back is a protocol about session participation but it also has a strong likeness to the idea of responsive leadership. You don’t have to make a solitary choice, you don’t need to operate under a fixed ideaology. Adapt, change and respond to what is in front of you. Increase your awareness of this balancing act.

Nelson Mandela refers to a balance:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

I have presented similar ideas in the past about teaching and learning. Perhaps the true art of leadership is in the complex balancing act between these paradigms. It is not in the extremes.

  • Strike a balance
  • Respond and adapt to what is in front of you
  • Step up and step back
  • Leverage your empathy

The leaders I work with every week wrestle with the tension and complexity of real situations. These constantly demand both the subtle art of nudging others to move ahead, with pointing the direction and inviting others to follow.

In my experience leadership is as much about creating the conditions for others to develop as it is helping to direct that progress.

Photo by Daryan Shamkhali