Leading From Behind
Updated: May 11
If leadership is about motivating and mobilizing people toward a desired goal, and multiplying this process through others; I believe one of the most effective forms of leadership can be called leading from behind. Leading from behind is the ability to equip, set direction, stand back and let others lead. It prizes initiative and creativity among team members to harness each person's God-given genius. By letting others move to the forefront and experience leadership, they begin to become far more creative, productive and discover the best solutions to problems encountered.
This style of leadership reflects the shepherding focus taught by Jesus.
Jesus called them together and said, You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant... Mark 10:42-43
…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Matthew 20:28
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:11
Linda Hill describes this shepherding focus of leadership as follows:
This image of the shepherd behind his flock is an acknowledgment that leadership is a collective activity in which different people at different times--depending on their strengths, or 'nimbleness'--come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go. The metaphor also hints at the agility of a group that doesn't have to wait for and then respond to a command from the front. That kind of agility is more likely to be developed by a group when a leader conceives of her role as creating the opportunity for collective leadership, as opposed to merely setting direction.
What does this look like?
The leader seeks to withdraw from center stage. By doing so, he empowers and inspires others to become stakeholders in the goals and innovation is more naturally unleashed. Additionally, by allowing team members the opportunity to execute, practice decision making, and experiencing mistakes, this promotes the ongoing process of raising up new leaders allowing a legacy of influence to be built. This type of leadership, which harnesses collective genius, requires considerable skill, focus and energy.
The leader stays focused on the bigger picture. Leading from behind doesn’t mean giving up leadership direction or vision. The shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together and heads in the right direction. This is deliberate and not accidental. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off course or into danger. A culture of freedom and creativity is developed but within definite boundaries.
The leader values people ahead of performance. Teams led from the front feel valued only when they succeed. Teams with a leader who leads from behind forge a deeper trust because they have a personal connection to the mission and the people who make up the mission. People are valued for who they are and have the opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves. A shared purpose brings the people together and makes them willing to do the hard work of innovation.
Today's Cultural Climate
Leading from behind is a form of leadership which is increasingly needed for today. More and more people are not wanting to be told what the future will look like; they want to be co-creators of that future. People expect to have the opportunity to co-author the group’s purpose. The social relationship between leaders and followers are changing. People are seeking more meaning and purpose in their lives. They want and increasingly expect to be valued for who they are and to be able to contribute to something larger than themselves.
From the perspective of the kingdom of God and the church, Paul expresses this co-creative ownership as...
...the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:16