In Leadership is an Art, one of my favorite business books on leadership, Max DePree writes about two kinds of leaders—those who live within the hierarchical structure, and those he refers to as “roving leaders,” which he defines as the “ indispensable people in our lives who are there when we need them.” DePree notes, “In special situations, the hierarchical leader is obliged to identify the roving leader, then to support and follow him or her, and also to exhibit the grace that enables the roving leader to lead.”
Think of when someone has handed over leadership to someone else, who turns out to be the right person in the right place. Often, it is emblematic of the saying that special times call for special leaders.
A Quick Story on Roving Leadership
SETTING: A couple riding inside a rented car in a new city. You can feel the
dramatic tension in the car.
John: Where’s that restaurant?
there? No, over there. Nope. I think it’s over there. (Now
screaming) That other street!
John: Let’s cut through this alley.
(Pan to alley, lined with metal dumpsters, the car turns and proceeds into alley. A mangled dumpster’s twisted metal punctures the sidewall of the tiny car’s tiny tire.)
Iris: Let’s park the car in this dark, deserted lot. I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
(John and Iris exit the restaurant, scene in alley is dark and desperate. They proceed to pull out the car’s tiny lug wrench and tire jack from the tiny trunk.)
Iris: This tiny tire jack can’t possibly work on this tiny car, can it?
(Roving Leader enters scene: From the dark depths, a tall man climbs out of a muddy ‘60’s era jeep.)
Roving Leader: Hey do you need a hand?
Iris/John (in unison): Yes!
(John turns to face the audience)
John: I handed over authority, and participated appreciatively, as he took over
with the tiny tools, and within 10 minutes had raised the car the
requisite number of inches to perform the task. (John looks down at his
feet, acts embarrassed but relieved. Looking up again.) The
smartest—and maybe, some would argue the only—thing I could do at
the time, was to hand over leadership, to the right person at the right
For whatever reason, someone has stepped into the role of roving leader. These roving leaders often emerge from a wider circle of colleagues than one may have originally considered as essential to your team.
A true leader knows when to lead and when to follow.