Leading From Behind

3 minute read

Many people are under the impression that you need to be in charge in order to be a leader. They’re wrong.

On wikipedia we read:

In US academic environments leadership is defined as “a process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”.

So in order to be a leader, you must be able to enlist the aid of others in helping get something done. In many cases we see this as somebody standing in the front of a group and motivating other people. What I find interesting is that while this can be the case, there are other cases when it is not.

For example, in Ender’s Game, Ender is the outcast, the one who has been isolated by both the adults as well as the students at the school. And yet, through personal integrity and a willingness to take risks he displays leadership.

One example of how this shows is when he questions Colonel Rath about their emails being blocked. It’s something all the students are questioning, but Ender is willing to risk the displeasure of his superior officers in order to get answers. He leads the “launchies” by asking what all of them want to know but that none of them have the courage to do.

And he pays the price for his insubordination. He is commanded to do 20 pushups, and when he continues to question, he is commanded to do another 20, all while his peers watch in silence. When the sergeant finally leaves after telling them all to go to bed, instead of instantly heading to their bunks, they look to Ender, who then tells them to get some sleep. He has become their leader and spokesman in front of the adults, and eventually becomes the defacto leader in every other respect.1

One could argue that the adults made Ender the leader of that group, but if so, they did it by forcing him to become the leader by developing those skills necessary without putting him into a position of power. Instead he developed them on his own, and then they put him into a situation where he would learn from other leaders, both good and bad.

Being a leader from behind is a bit trickier than it is in the movies. For example, as a leader from behind, you need to respect and help the actual leader in their worthwhile goals. You need to respect their decisions, but also be willing to bring up challenges you see so they are aware of them. If a leader from behind disrespects or demeans the leader, they risk their own leadership as well as undermine the effectiveness of the group itself.

It’s actually harder to be a leader from behind than it is to be a leader in the front. It requires deposits of respect and empowerment to both the actual leader as well as the rest of the group. It requires humility, and a lot of it. The leader from behind needs to recognize the strengths of those around him and speak up for them, providing them the opportunity to shine instead of taking all the credit or opportunities to advance for himself.

When I talk about leading from behind I’m not taking about it it as it is portrayed in the Harvard Business Review or in other media outlets. More often than not, they refer to the “leader from behind” as a shepherd. Still, as a shepherd or as a conductor, the implication is that this person is in a designated or appointed position of leadership.

Instead I’m talking about the person who is usually a member of the group, but does not have any defined position as a leader. This person has only their influence with the group and nothing else. They lead, not because of their position in the organization, but because of who they are and how people feel when they are around them.

It’s an interesting concept and one that I’ve only recently become aware of, but that I think is worth exploring more. There are leaders all around us and I think some of the more lasting and influential leaders may be those who are leading from behind instead of those who are visible. When you think about it, one of the most influential people to ever walk the earth was a person with no political position and yet has influenced the world ever since he set foot on it.

  1. Watch the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fP8-L_fS0OI 

Updated:

Leave a Comment