Why First Nations Foundation CEO Phil Usher embraces leading from behind

First Nations Foundation leadership

Members of the First Nations Foundation. Source: supplied.

Nelson Mandela likened a great leader to a shepherd in his autobiography, understanding when to lead and when to step back.

“He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.”

This also resonates in the context of the social justice Indigenous Australians seek. 

While other leadership books focus on mentoring and engaging staff, in the fight for freedom, people have already bought into the cause and are self-motivated. Leading from behind means trying to harness that energy and ensure it’s heading in the right direction. I’m lucky to have a far-reaching community and to have come across many elders who passed on their knowledge. Dad always had good insight, people skills and a deep cultural understanding, which helped inform my approach. 

As we celebrate Indigenous Business Month throughout October, I’m intrigued by differing leadership styles and the profound effect this has on a team’s ability to innovate and create, especially when it comes to Indigenous businesses. Aboriginal people thrived for more than 65,000 years on this continent — you have to be creative and innovative to do that.

When I worked for the government, it was so different interacting with my manager, who appeared to have such a laidback leadership style. She didn’t take charge or play the conventional title role, rather she was selective in forming a team and supporting them to do what they do best. 

It wasn’t until I became CEO of First Nations Foundation that I discovered that leading from behind naturally suits my personality and style. It works particularly well in this arena and contributed to our being awarded 2020 Indigenous Business of the Year. It’s a complicated space that requires collective input, not laying down an agenda. I’m certainly not going to come up with all the solutions myself. 

How to lead from behind

Compared to more structured management, hands-on leadership where you check in all the time, leading from behind is about getting people to understand how they contribute. It’s a high-level style that many aren’t aware of. Whereas traditional leaders put on a brave face as the person in charge, this is about leaving your ego at the door and being honest and vulnerable. 

I’m open about mental health and share with my team when I’m going through an exhausting period. The other day I told our chief operating officer Emma that I was taking a mental health day. I could have shown up but I wasn’t at the level to respond to stakeholders — which is a positive thing to recognise. She took one herself not long after, so we normalised it. People feel the need to make up excuses, or pull a sickie to have a day off, when just not being up to the work is okay. Emma is a very detailed, structured person and it works well having a real contrast between us. She puts my high-level ideas into action; it’s always good to have that offset person. 

In our organisation, there’s usually a transition period for new employees who have come from the corporate world and are used to being dictated to. Here we empower people to think laterally. When recruiting, we choose people not only based on experience, but also if they fit the culture. Often when interviewing, leaders feel obliged to sell the organisation — we are upfront and give them the opportunity to opt out. We had an operating manager reach the final stage of the process, and while he could deliver, I felt that the virtual nature of our team didn’t match his personality, and he really appreciated our honesty. 

You have to balance acknowledging individual brilliance with group accomplishments. Larisha, who is in charge of our women’s project, went above and beyond our base content framework, demonstrating outstanding innovation and creativity by lining up speakers and an entire master class series, which saw 101 Indigenous women register for the first free webinar. 

Recently, we achieved an important milestone as an organisation, receiving over $790,000 as part of the Australian government’s Women’s Leadership and Development Program to support and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with skills to secure a prosperous future. It was the largest amount First Nations Foundation has ever received, and the whole team was waiting for that confirmation email to come in together. 

Leading from behind is about getting staff buy-in and understanding how each person contributes. We are a collective — why have one person working on a problem when you could have half a dozen implement a more well-rounded solution? Our management is flexible and approachable; we try to create an environment of innovation and encourage engaging in dialogue. It’s important to communicate that we’re not dictating from the top. 

In chaotic times, though, it’s necessary to be more direct and present. When starting a new program I step up and deliver the first few so people can understand the style and structure. Once they have the hang of it, are self-sufficient and start creating momentum, that’s when I really step back and let them go.

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