Leading from behind

There have been big swaths of my life when I felt like I was leading from behind. I suspect that many, many others have felt the same way, though they might not have named the phenomenon thus. Here are some examples:

  • Having more experience and information than anyone else in a group, but not being listened to;
  • Deciding that it will be more useful to be a group’s secretary because at least then I can edit what is recorded, even if I cannot get a word in during a discussion;
  • Reporting to managers with no management experience;
  • Finding an answer that a group needs to discover on their own;
  • Using an approach that will efficiently and effectively get to a solution while others prefer trial and error;
  • Being asked to participate in a search process to fill a leadership position for which you are the best candidate.

Of course, each of these examples could be viewed from a very different perspective. I wonder at times if the feelings of leading from behind are unique to those who are first-born or youngest among siblings in a family. I also wonder if the feelings are commonplace for women, people of color, people whose first language in the US is not English, poor and working-class people, and others marginalized and disempowered in society.

I wonder, too, how it is to work on a board that is replacing its founding executive. That founder is the guy or woman who is out front, figured things out, speaks for the agency, and more. And, while that founder is in a spotlight, board members are leading the agency into a new era with little fanfare or notice.

Carlton, Tanya, Helmut, Ann, Diane, Leonard, Velvet, Rebecca, Natalie, Lenore, Todd, and Gerard have put their hands on the reins of the agency I lead, next to my hands, even over my hands. They have assured me in actions and words that they are ready and able to hold the reins and pass them off to a new leader. They have done this quietly and steadily.

Before my husband died last December, I publicly said many times over a period of three decades that I appreciated him for being my partner in leadership, effectively coordinating almost everything in my life so that I could do what else was needed. What I said less frequently was that my vision was shaped in the context of his leadership from behind. I could see what was possible because he could see me. So, too, for Carlton and Tanya, leading without fanfare, but leading powerfully nonetheless. Here’s an example documented by Keith Knox.

Stansbury and Atkinson Comments


One thought on “Leading from behind

  1. We are all given opportunities to lead. Sometimes by being in the front as the president, chair, or chief executive of a group or agency. Sometimes, as Gary has stated, we find it easier to lead from behind, or as a “follower”, in secondary positions. However we all have to challenge ourselves and others to “walk the walk,” and not just “talk the talk.” It’s important to empower those who do not have a voice, or who do not know how to speak out, or those who may fear of consequences from those in power. Sharing of power and decision-making is easy to speak about but tough to implement. –Mark P Behar, Co-Chair, National Association of Black and White Men Together


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