Here’s what I know about leadership. What began as the exclusive study of leader traits moved to an understanding of the influence of circumstances on leader qualities, and then to the contemporary view of leadership as a process. As a process, leadership includes both the leader and follower characteristics in a collaborative venture to achieve common objectives.

What I’ve found is that the general public is still relatively stuck at the leader trait level and in general does not include the relationship between leaders and followers. That’s changing in business organizations. The big question for them is if followers are people who execute well and who have certain leader traits themselves, what do leaders really do?

Leaders today are more conceptual visionaries, facilitators and guides. Command and control leadership is moving to the side as more collaboration is accepted and needed for the complexities of business. There are still times when a strong leader is needed especially in emergencies and crises.

I’ve used a simple model to show the contemporary view of leadership. It’s rooted in the three places a shepherd uses to guide the flock. I once saw a shepherd moving his flock to the pastures near a lake in France. It was a memorable scene. He was behind the entire flock. That scene offers an interesting model for a discussion of leadership.

The three places for leadership come from the shepherds of the world. As I noted earlier, they don’t always guide from the front. That said, let’s leave them for a while tending their sheep while we move to a description of the relationship between the leader and the followers. Leaders and followers interact in many ways. They exchange information, make decisions, and engage each other in very flexible ways. Let’s see how it can work.

The three places for leadership are from the front, the side, and the back. Looking at each one we find that leading from the front means a leader who may have listened to his followers but has decided on a particular path and assures that every one stays on it. It may be from a position of a compelling strategy or just a command and control power position.

Leaders in front typically have a direction, and see every act as stemming from achieving that direction. Followers are encouraged to follow the leader and may even be dependent on her. Decisions and changes are typically made by the leader.

Leading from the side means a leader who acknowledges the expertise of some followers. They have the skills to make the initial moves and may need an occasional push to one side.

Such followers are knowledgeable, feel they have meaningful work, and have a good sense of direction in sync with the leader. Among them are people who are experienced and can make decisions. The leader exerts his influence when the situation changes in an unexpected way.

Leading from the back is the most efficient leader/follower relationship so far. The leader recognizes that followers are organized in such a way as to get the goals done effectively. They may be organized into teams each making a unique contribution to success. The leader is there to coach and advise as needed. The followers share the objectives and resources of the whole flock, to return to the shepherd analogy.

A leader under these conditions may do very little except follow along since she is in general agreement with the pace and direction. The leader and followers are very cohesive and understand each other’s position and contributions. There’s minimal communication and much interdependence exerted by the followers to the leader. The followers adjust to changesand keep moving forward.

The leader still maintains a steady watch over the followers as they move forward. If events are moving in an unexpected direction, the leader can move to the side or if necessary to the front to prevent a serious consequence from developing. The latter is highly unlikely given the joint preparations needed to even start the journey as an effective leader/follower team.

If there is a fourth place, it will be characterized by a totally collaborative environment with majority rule. Leaders will be interchangeable depending on the circumstances. The team will move in the direction that supports the whole team and would yield the highest results. It will have a very strategic focus and will anticipate and weigh every option in terms of agreed to goals. Team members coach each other as the situation may require.

Trust and common values will define its culture. It will be small in number and will interact with other smaller teams to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. It will easily exchange people in support of their individual goals and the team’s needs. It will be flexible, resilient, and survive the challenges of a complex world. Its applications can span business, politics, religion, and education.

Should I pinch myself or work harder to make the fourth place happen?

Bob Vecchiotti is a business adviser and professional coach in Peterborough. He lives in Dublin.