While Barack Obama never publicly uttered the phrase “leading from behind,” one of his advisors – a White House official – did use it to describe the president’s Arab Spring policy, as quoted in a 2011 New Yorker piece by Ryan Lizza:
“One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”
This may surprise you, but the concept of “leading from behind” or being a “fast follower” has been around for quite some time. It’s been used before as political doctrine and business strategy. And it’s as remarkably flawed and ultimately doomed to failure as empty slogans like “hope and change.”
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple (AAPL) in 1997, the company was run by a guy named Gil Amelio. Jobs didn’t think much of Amelio. In Walter Isaacson’s biography of the iconic Apple co-founder, Jobs called his predecessor “a buffoon” who “took himself so seriously” and “insisted that everyone call him Dr. Amelio.”
There’s a story in the book about how Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison introduced Amelio to technology journalist Gina Smith at a party. When Smith asked how Apple was doing, Amelio’s reply was priceless:
“You know, Gina, Apple is like a ship,” Amelio said. “That ship is loaded with treasure, but there's a hole in the ship. And my job is to get everyone to row in the same direction."
Perplexed, Smith asked, "Yeah, but what about the hole?"
"When Larry relayed this story to me, we were in this sushi place, and I literally fell off my chair laughing,” said Jobs. Not only did Amelio’s remarks become a running joke between the two, Jobs used it to crack up Bill Gates on stage at AllThingsD’s annual D5 conference more than a decade later.
But buffoonery and playing a distinct role in the near destruction of Apple isn’t all Amelio’s known for. Before that he was chief executive of National Semiconductor where he promoted a “fast follower” strategy. While the company did grow under Amelio, the industry grew much faster. National slipped from its long held position as the 11th largest chip company in the world all the way down to number 20.
Guess they didn’t follow fast enough.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that being a fast follower isn’t a common business strategy or that leading from behind isn’t a viable foreign policy doctrine. They’re perfectly reasonable for leaders who, for whatever reason, aren’t very good at what they do.
The most important function of any leader – whether you’re running a company or a country – is to come up with a winning strategy. The key word here isn’t “strategy,” it’s “winning.” Anyone can come up with an idea, a product, a plan. What separates great leaders from the pack is consistently coming up with winning ones.
Look at it this way. When you see a doctor, do you want someone who just practices medicine, or do you want a professional who will come up with the right diagnosis or perform a successful procedure?
Do you hire an attorney to draft any old contract or just fumble around in court or do you want one to come up with an airtight agreement and be a winning litigator?
Do you contract a builder who uses antiquated techniques or one with state-of-the-industry knowledge, capability, and tools?
It’s the same with leaders. Anyone can try to lead. Believe me, all sorts of losers do. But the definition of a leader who isn’t very effective at his job is one who can’t come up with a winning strategy, so he follows close behind someone who can.
The job of every CEO and business leader is to come up with strategies and plans that beat the competition. The great ones do. They innovate. They lead. They execute. And they win. The poor ones don’t. They follow. They fall further and further behind. And ultimately, they lose. Trust me, the latter result is never by choice. Never.
It’s the same thing with nations. We compete in global markets. We live in a competitive world. It’s a zero sum game out there. And if China’s giving us a run for our money and people don’t love us everywhere we go, that’s nothing new.
We’ve always had competitors. There will always be tough battles to fight. And the only hope we have of coming out on top is to break the mold, get out in front, and lead. That’s how great companies win. It’s also how great nations win.
And if you can’t do that, you can call it anything you like, you’re still nothing but a lousy leader.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.