Leading From Behind

Sometimes the best helping hand you can get is a good, firm push. Joann Thomas

We often think of the leader as the person out in front, the visionary whom others are inspired by. Followers are close behind, focused on the goal, listening for direction, taking action, moving forward as the leader moves forward.

The above quote reminds us that sometimes, the best leading is done from behind.

Engage Creative Genius

The May 10 edition of the Harvard Business Review includes a post titled “Leading From Behind,” about the impact of today’s economy on leadership styles.  Author Linda Hill notes that today’s successful leaders are those who are skilled at “harnessing people’s collective genius.”

Hill cites two conditions for success:

First, leaders must ensure people in their organizations are willing to innovate. This is fundamentally about building community.

Some leaders refer to this function as “creating a world to which people want to belong.” In these communities, people are valued for who they are and have the opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves.

Second, leaders must build the organizational capabilities necessary for engaging in the innovation process. The three essential organizational capabilities are:

  • Creative abrasion – The ability to generate ideas through intellectual discourse and discussion
  • Creative agility – The ability to test and refine ideas through quick pursuit, and
  • Creative resolution – The ability to make decisions in an integrative manner

The Right People

In April, Voice of America News also published an article titled Leading From Behind about Nelson Mandela, and the relationship that Time Magazine editor Richard Stengel built with him over a three-year period.  Stengel collaborated on Mandela’s autobiography, Long Road to Freedom, and now his own book about the man, Mandela’s Way: 15 Lessons on Life, Love and Courage.

In the VOA article, Stengel shared this Mandela story:

“Lead from the front is the more conventional kind of leading that we know — getting up on the podium and giving a speech or saying follow me. But leading from the back is a different idea. We used to take these early morning walks in the countryside near where he grew up. He once asked me if I ever herded cattle before. I said, ‘no.’

He said, ‘It’s interesting because there are lessons for leadership because the way you herd cattle is you lead them from behind. You find the most able and smartest cattle and have them lead the way. You empower them.’ He said that’s a good lesson for all of us. You basically have to kind of share the wealth. You have to find people who can execute your vision and ideas.”

The above excerpts are very different in approach, but share the same concept.  A leader does not have to be the person out front leading the charge.

The leader is the person who creates the vision, sets the direction, and then puts the right people in the right position to move the team toward the goal.

Leadership is Influence

Leadership is not a place in line, a box on an org chart, or a title on a business card.

Authentic leadership is the ability to influence a group of people toward a common vision.

That leading can be done from the front, from among the people, or pushing from behind.  A strong leader knows which type of leadership is needed at the moment, and puts the right leadership skills to use.

When have you found leading from behind to be more effective?  What was different in your approach compared to leading from the front? What leading from behind wisdom can you share with our readers?


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Eleanor Biddulph
Eleanor Biddulph
 is the EVP of Client Services at Progressive Medical, Inc.
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Edited by Mike Weppler

Image Sources: wrrm.org, valuesintopractice.com

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5 responses to “Leading From Behind

  1. Great post! I decided long ago, to “lead by example”, from behind or in front. There’s a lot of power in “being the example” of what you want others to emulate.


  2. Pam – thank you for visiting and commenting! When it comes to leadership, I think actions really do speak louder than words! Living as an example of the behaviors we hope to develop in others can speak volumes.


  3. i really enjoyed this post and the examples that were cited. I also agree with those who say we lead by our example, not with our words. Experience has shown that often the best leaders are those who are “accidental”, meaning they have small interest in leading or in being seen as a Leader but end up in the front of the room simply because they recognize themselves to be most qualified to “execute the vision”. I am reminded of an old saying about Kings: “The best Kings rule by serving. And, therefore, serve by ruling.”


  4. Jacqueline – I appreciate your comment. Thank you for joining the conversation. Accidental leadership sounds like a future blog topic… 🙂


  5. Pingback: Are You a Reader Leader? « Linked 2 Leadership·

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