Leading from Behind

It’s Guest post Monday! This post is written by Dan Erickson who writes at Intentional Rhythms. He is the author of A Train Called Forgiveness which follows his own journey from childhood victim of a religious cult through his tumultuous twenties.

The title of “leader” supports the vision of someone out in the front of his or her followers, at the head of the race.  But is this really the best position for an other-focused leader?  How can one focus on their followers if they are too far ahead of them?  Leadership requires both collaboration and motivation.

It’s imperative that a great leader be willing and able to work beside his or her followers on both the practical and emotional level.  We respect leaders who are willing to get in the ditches with the common worker and share the shovel from time to time or the leader who is willing to stand beside us when we are struggling either professionally or personally.  A leader that’s willing to stand beside us is better than the leader who is simply a figurehead and usually absent from his or her followers’ lives.  But even more importantly, a good leader should be willing to lead from behind, having the humility to motivate and direct and even sweep up any messes.

Leading from behind shows strength.  Willingness to let some your followers or employees pull out in front does not show weakness, but rather shows strength and the willingness to create a solid team-based organization.  A great leader knows the specific abilities of others on his or her team and gives them the space and freedom to take the lead on projects that are suited to those abilities.

Leading from behind is a winning strategy.  We’ve all worked in groups where the leader took off with the project and basically called every shot, leaving his or her followers feeling as though they had no importance in the project.  As humans, we need to feel recognized and capable of performing at our best.  Great leaders understand this and are willing to work next to their followers and even motivate them to move into the lead at times.  This type of leadership lifts his or her employees spirits and creates a strong sense of respect and sportsmanship among the entire group.  Now that’s a winning strategy.

Leading from behind provides freedom.  When we make a deliberate choice as a leader to give our followers the freedom to do their best, even at the risk of allowing them to move ahead of of us, the end result is more freedom for all involved.  Trusting others to excel in their responsibilities allows you, as the leader, more freedom to focus on working on a variety of other areas, including helping those who need more guidance and brainstorming new ideas and products or making improvements on existing ones.

Leading from behind provides vision. When you’re in front of the race you can’t see what’s going on behind you.  Staying behind allows you the vision to see not only the track, but also all of your team.  Temporally, leading from behind means using your own past experiences as learning events.  Your previous mistakes as a leader can provide tremendous insight into your present choices.  If we are observantly humble we can gain an increasingly stronger, truer vision for the future by understanding our past.

Questions: Have you been willing to be the kind of leader who works with your followers or teammates? Are you willing to let others take the lead in the specific areas where they shine?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Dan,

    Hooah, my friend! Or as my Navy counterparts say Bravo Zulu!

    This is the 100% truth, During my 4th tour of duty in Iraq I allowed my Soldiers to take the lead. I would teach them, coach them, and mentor them as they took the lead, My leaders cringed at first but they believed in me and realized I was empowering my Soldiers.

    In the end they were managing projects and interacting with senior leaders. We experienced a few bumps and bruises along the way but in the end we excelled!

    God Speed My Friend1

  • Great post. I think leading from in front or micro managing will ensure an average result. The potential of leading the right way is truly leveraging the talents of others to do more. In turn, if all is better it should be better for all.

    • Wise words Floyd. Thank you for sharing.

  • I’ve worked for Micro managers and have been really frustrated. I’m also a perfectionist so I realize the challenge it can be to NOT micro manage. Having collaboration and team work can be frustrating at times, but the end result is worth it. As the old saying goes, “There’s no I in TEAM”.

    “When you’re in front of the race you can’t see what’s going on behind you.” Reminds me of another old saying “Hind sight’s 20/20″, how much better to NOT have hindsight but to work alongside others or behind them so you can learn as well as lead? Tomorrow’s leaders come from today’s “followers”, we better make sure we are teaching them how to lead and not just to follow orders.

    sorry to ramble, just all my thoughts from reading your post. Thanks!

    • Great thoughts, TC. I’ve worked for some micro managers, too. It can be tough. I like that you point out that followers are tomorrow’s leaders. So you think working beside them can strengthen them for the future?

      • Something like that. Work beside them, work behind them, push them forward, help them to see their potential, encourage them, help them learn from mistakes and see how we handle mistakes.
        We have to make sure they can function without us…we can’t do that if we only tell them what to do. They must see how we handle day to day life- the ups and the downs. At least, this is my opinion.

    • It can be frustrating to work for a micro manager, I have had one before. They really hold production and the team back when they micro manage everything. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  • Dan, great post. The more I learn about leadership the more I learn it is a balance of Pointing where the path needs to be, and letting some clear the path, while others lay the bricks in the road. All the while, you are saying “Great job everyone! You are doing work that matters! Soon we will be where we are going. Now, we have done what we needed to do today.”

    • I love your example and road metaphor, Todd. Thanks.

  • I’m taking a Christian leadership class that is a 2 year program and what you said about leading from behind provides freedom is something I have been putting a focus on lately. Giving someone the ability to choose their path, and you both decide the desired result is how leaders develop other leaders, not just followers. Great ideas you have here.

    • Thanks Jeremy. It’s funny, I’m a teacher, but am not what I’d consider an active leader, yet the ideas in my post just seem intuitive. I think we all have some intuitive knowledge regarding leadership. Would you agree?

    • So true Jeremy. Allow people to take the lead can be allow them to gain hands on experience which will train them to become influences. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment.

  • I have never thought of leadership this way but it makes sense. Thanks for the new perspective Dan, great thoughts.

    • Glad the post connected with you. Dan Erickson did a great job writing the post.

  • Dan, for me this is a journey. I think balance is key. Running ahead (cos a leader must have direction) and staying with the people. And helping the team shine. Overall the buck stops with the leader. I think a great leader learns to keep this tender balance.

    • I’m a big proponent of finding balance in my own life. I agree that balance is a key quality for great leaders, too. Thanks, Ngina.

    • Great points Ngina, I agree their needs to be a balance.

  • I encourage my team members to lead, while I stay in the back coaching and giving guidance as necessary. One of the ways I do that is by allowing them to make decisions and provide feedback later.

    • That sounds like an excellent method, Juan. Have you found that this makes others more comfortable and satisfied with your guidance? I think people respond better when they are coached rather than told what to do.

      • Dan E, it does makes others more comfortable. I can see it by how they relate to me,and are willing to do what I ask. I try to stay humble in my approach, coach them, ask politely, courteously.

    • Providing hands on experience is an important aspect in training and developing future leaders. Great points Juan. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  • Your welcome Dan. Thank you for writing such a great post.

  • I have some experience within the network marketing industry, and this post sums up exactly what I’ve been able to conclude over the years. Spot on Dan! The phrase I like best is “You can’t push a rope but you can pull it.” That basically means when you’re faced with a leadership role, you’ll be much more effective setting a proper example and even taking on the burden of extra work until your organization sees fit to jump into a leadership role themselves. Inspiration can be external, but motivation must always be internal and some people just aren’t ready. Leading from behind or “servant leadership” is crucial in building trustworthy relationships, and furthermore it will help build followers into leaders. There’s nothing more powerful than leaders leading leaders leading leaders (and so on..) Thanks for such an enlightening post Dan!

    • Thanks, Ryan. A long time ago a friend showed me that same push/pull idea with a rubber band on a table. You can’t push it, but you can pull it.

  • The idea of showing strength and humility is what stuck out to me. It shows that a leader is concerned about the team and the goal – not just about themselves.

    • That was a great point Dan made. It’s essential the team knows the leader cares and is for them. Thank you for taking time to read and comment.

  • I have found I get consistently better results from my team when I step back and let them do what they do best. The added advantage is that we are building bench strength for when it is time for my next role. Enjoyed the post!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post Tom. Great things do happen when we allow others to take the lead on different projects or tasks. Thank you for stopping by. Hope to see you around.