Leading from behind: How and why it works (2023)

What does leading from behind mean?

People interested in leadership have probably heard or seen the phrase “leading from behind”. It’s the idea that leaders don’t guide a group of people, a team, a company, etc. from the front, in the traditional top-down management hierarchy. Instead, they lead from the rear, like a shepherd tending to a flock.

To many folks, this concept may seem—like many suddenly popular team leading ideas—as if it came out of nowhere. “Leading from behind” experienced a major cultural bump in 2011, when New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote that an Obama administration official had described the president's foreign policy as “leading from behind”. The truth, however, is that the notion of leading from behind has a far more interesting history.

Though the words “leading from behind” may not be spoken explicitly at companies, one can see its influence in modern tech companies. Google is well-known for its management style, in which employees across various teams are encouraged to express ideas, thereby fostering a quick and nimble type of innovation pipeline.

Below, we will get into the history of leading from behind. We will also explain how and why it works.

(Video) Leading from behind! The future of leadership | Niels Caszo | TEDxFSUJena

Origin Story

Everyone knows Nelson Mandela as a South African freedom fighter and, after many years of imprisonment, the first black leader of his home country. For these reasons alone, Mandela is iconic both at home and abroad. But, his style of leadership, which he spoke about often, has many practical lessons for the rest of the world. One of those practical lessons was the idea of leading from behind.

In his fantastic autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela likened a successful leader to a shepherd: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

Sure, everyone knows how a shepherd directs a flock of sheep, but what does this mean for the multitude of teams, organizations, and companies out there in the world?

Writing in 2014, Omar Mohammed—at the time, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication—elaborated on Lizza’s brief mention of “leading from behind”.

(Video) Leading From Behind: Faye Wightman at TEDxLangara

“Both Mr. Mandela and Mr. Obama appear to believe that in order to get the results (s)he wants, a leader has to make sure that everyone buys into the vision of what they are trying to achieve. At the core of this idea seems to be the abdication of one’s ego for the good of the collective. It is also the kind of leadership that is more concerned about accomplishments of the group rather than the elevation of personal and individual glory.”

What does “leading from behind” look like?

Even if we think of a company and its leader as a flock and shepherd, we should refine what this means, as well as what it looks like in practice. A company could interpret this however they like, depending on how they want their business to operate, but here is a basic framework of leading from behind.

Organizations and companies can be viewed as a space for collective leadership. Not in the sense of a co-op as equal business ownership, but in the sense that any member, if willing and able, can help chart a course for a company or organization. Naturally, a business founder or management team will need to encourage this type of spontaneous quality for it to take root and bloom.

A company or organization that encourages leadership from behind would see different people at different times coming forward to take the team in the direction(s) it needs to go. A new direction might be something like exploring novel ideas or markets, or even taking the lead on creating a fun work environment instead of one known for drudgery.

Harvard Business professor Linda Hill emphasizes that leading from behind is not equivalent to a leader bowing out of their leadership position, and instituting mob rule. Instead, she calls it the “harnessing” of people’s “collective genius”.

“Leading from behind doesn’t mean abrogating your leadership responsibilities,” writes Hill in the Harvard Business Review. “After all, the shepherd makes sure that the flock stays together. He uses his staff to nudge and prod if the flock strays too far off course or into danger. For leaders, it’s a matter of harnessing people’s collective genius. Doing so entails two primary responsibilities — and they are not easy to get right.”

The first is that a leader will encourage their flock to innovate. Secondly, to innovate, a leader will encourage team members to first generate, then share and refine their idea with the team. And, ultimately, they will integrate the idea into the company’s framework.

(Video) How To Lead When You're Not In Charge - Jocko Willink

Why leading from behind?

There are a number of reasons that this management style can prove effective—some more obvious than others.

Team members want more input

It’s a human instinct for team members to desire input or “say” in how a company or other organization operates and evolves. This is natural. In the past, rigid work hierarchies were cultivated by management. Management issued directives in a top-down manner, even though they didn’t actively prohibit or discourage non-management team members from speaking up.

In a recent blog post on fostering teamwork, the Australian Institute of Business suggested that companies and organizations should “flatten the team hierarchy”.

“At startup publishing company Medium, one of the key tenets has been to distribute decision-making power and discourage consensus seeking,” the Australian Institute of Business writes. “Their approach meant that even the newest intern could feel comfortable taking an idea to the CEO and ideas flowed freely throughout the company.”
“Your company may have a more formal hierarchy, but consider flattening that out within your own team,” the institute added. “As a manager, keep an open door, emphasise collaboration and make sure everyone feels as if they’re in it together. As well as fostering innovation, you’ll promote engagement within your team, ensuring that everyone does their best.”

Harvard Business’s Linda Hill says this approach works because the traditional “psychological contract” between companies and employees is changing.

“Among other things, people are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives,” Hill notes. “They want and increasingly expect to be valued for who they are and to be able to contribute to something larger than themselves. People expect to have the opportunity to co-author their organization’s purpose. They want to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world.”

More ideas, more innovation

Companies led from behind are both nimble and agile. And they are nimble and agile because team members are encouraged to generate and share innovative ideas.

(Video) Leading from Behind | Life lessons from the trenches | Capt. Raghu Raman | Leadership Talks

This type of leadership shouldn’t be mistaken for a style that encourages even more input from those individuals who are already assertive and offering their ideas. Every team, organization, and company has assertive people. In a company led from behind, anyone at the company with a good idea is encouraged to articulate and share it.

An inclusive, led from behind team would look for those individuals who are typically silent, soft-spoken, or generally uneager to speak up. Hill encourages companies and teams to not overlook these people.

In a Harvard Business Review interview, Hill referred to these folks as “stylistic invisibles” because they “don't exhibit the take-charge, direction-setting behavior we often think of as inherent in leadership, they are overlooked when an organization selects the people it believes have leadership potential.”


As we can now see, “leading from behind” as a clear concept and team-building technique (or approach) has its origins in Nelson Mandela’s experience in freedom fighting. And since Mandelia articulated it, leading from behind has also become a viable doctrine for other politicians.

But the lessons from “leading from behind” are many for businesses, organizations, and other groups looking to optimize their talent and ideas. Remember, even interns at the Silicon Valley company Medium can feel comfortable approaching the company’s CEO with an idea. What this tells us is that leading from behind can be an engine for innovation.

(Video) Leno Asks Obama About His "Leading From Behind Tactic"

Ultimately, leading from behind is about creating a vision that team members can buy into. Instead of top-down management, this management style elevates the collective over hierarchy. It encourages all team members—not just the most assertive ones—to come up with ideas that will help a company or organization innovate, evolve, and flourish well into the future.

Map your company culture and discover your team’s unique motivational style with F4S — sign up for free today.


What is leading from behind strategy? ›

People interested in leadership have probably heard or seen the phrase “leading from behind”. It's the idea that leaders don't guide a group of people, a team, a company, etc. from the front, in the traditional top-down management hierarchy. Instead, they lead from the rear, like a shepherd tending to a flock.

Why is leading from behind good? ›

Leading from behind can be interpreted as leaders not wanting to be involved or do the do, but if done properly, communicated in the right way, it enables teams to grow, gain confidence and be more productive. Leading from behind requires good judgement, deciding when the team are ready to lead themselves.

What type of leader leads from behind? ›

Servant Leadership Style

Of the different styles of leadership, a leader who leads from behind is behaving as a servant leader. Servant leaders see to the needs of the team, which helps create the conditions that allows individuals to shine, making the best use of themselves and available resources.

Why it is better to lead from behind and to put others in front? ›

Lead from behind

It takes time and trust to get a worthy outcome of the efforts you put through your leadership. Keep in mind that you have to 'lead from behind' and 'put others in front' it means that your team has trust in you and you have trust in your team respectively.

Why do shepherds lead from behind? ›

The shepherd was "Leading from Behind" . This was the style based on faith, trust and also care. The Faith and Trust was on the sheep in the front who knew the path as they were taught by him and could now lead the new and young. The Care and support part came from Leader by Leading from Behind.

Is it better to lead from the front or back? ›

Leading from the front can be a more effective strategy than leading from behind, depending on the size of your organization and the specific challenge your team faces.

Why is leading without authority important? ›

Benefits of Leading Without Authority

Leading without authority can improve collaboration. Managing without authority is not about enhancing personal power or self-promotion. It's using a particular set of skills to get things done with others when you have no direct authority over them.

Why is it important to know yourself before leading? ›

Knowing yourself is the foundation of strong character, purpose, and authenticity. It's only when you understand who you are, not who the world thinks you are, that you're ready to lead. Knowing who you are, requires an accurate understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, values, beliefs, motivations, and desires.

Why Leading is the most difficult? ›

Leadership can be really hard. You have to juggle personalities, raise motivations, provide mentorship, continue learning, and meet the goals dictated down to you, all at the same time. On top of all that, the environment inside and outside your company is constantly shifting.

What type of leader is the most effective? ›

The democratic leadership style is one of the most effective because it encourages everyone to participate in all processes, share their opinions, and know that you will hear them. It also encourages employees to be engaged because they know you will hear their feedback.

What are the 3 basic types of leaders? ›

What are the three types of leadership styles in business? In 1939, Kurt Lewin identified three types of leadership styles in business: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire. Each, of course, comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Why is it important to lead through influence? ›

Leadership has been described as the ability to influence others. An effective leader moves followers into action not with coercion but by eliciting their desire and conviction in the vision and goals articulated by the leader. Misused influence can bring about catastrophic results.

Why is it important to lead through change? ›

Leading people through change is important to help ease worries, encourage communication, and address uncertainty. Periods of change can be stressful for an organization, but strong, empathetic leadership can help teams move through these transitions successfully.

Is there only one effective way to lead? ›

Effective leaders know that there is no one best way to manage people. Managers looking to improve their ability to lead people to higher levels of performance need to adapt their style to match the development level of the people they are managing.

Does a shepherd lead from behind or in front? ›

They are expected to guide and nourish opportunity. They nurture and docent their flock who follow and pave the path, fueling the mission's light ahead as the shepherd leads from behind.

What is the best way to lead sheep? ›

An acceptable way to lead a lamb is with one hand under his chin and the other hand on the back of his head. After you feel comfortable leading the lamb, learn how to position your hands in a way that hold the lamb's ears forward.

Do shepherds lead or follow? ›

Shepherds lead a manageable number of sheep from the front of the flock. Sheepherders make the sheep to move forward out of fear of the sheepherder and the dogs behind them. Shepherds move forward at the head of the flock and the sheep follow because they know and trust the shepherd.

What should a good lead not do? ›

10 Things Highly Successful Leaders Should Never Do
  • Lead Others Before You Lead Yourself. ...
  • Believe You Know Everything. ...
  • Neglect Outside Coaching. ...
  • Forget to Prioritize Spiritual, Mental and Physical Health. ...
  • Define Success Solely in Terms of Business and Work. ...
  • Avoid Showing Gratitude. ...
  • Fail to Support Others.

Do leaders always lead from the front? ›

Moreso, a leader at the “top” does not have to lead from the front – they can lead effectively from behind and beside, even if they're managing a growing team. In reality, a leader's role is interchangeable as someone who leads from the front, behind, and beside – depending on the team member, environment, and goals.

What type of leader leads from the front? ›

Leaders who lead from the front are generally very humble. Irrespective of their educational background or numerous success stories, they are the ones who are easily approachable. They are able to strike a chord with anyone. Also, they come across as non-judgemental and helpful.

What are the three most important rules of a leader? ›

What are the 3 Most Important Roles of a Leader?
  • Leaders need to have clear goals and objectives;
  • They need to motivate their followers and provide them with direction;
  • They must support their team members in order for them to succeed.
May 19, 2021

What are the 3 tactics to influence without authority? ›

Here are just five ways to influence without authority in a more traditional sense:
  • Ask for collaboration. Leading and influencing others as their peer still means enlisting them as collaborators. ...
  • Develop meaningful relationships. ...
  • Display your expertise. ...
  • Help people when you can. ...
  • Prove you can get things done.
Jun 6, 2022

How do you lead successfully without authority? ›

Here are some ways to influence without authority:
  1. Build relationships with the right people. Put your interpersonal skills to use. ...
  2. Adapt to other people's work styles. Everyone works differently. ...
  3. Be a team player. ...
  4. Help when you can. ...
  5. Simplify things for people. ...
  6. Articulate your value. ...
  7. Spread positivity.
Nov 7, 2022

How do you lead yourself effectively? ›

Three steps to understand yourself better include:
  1. Get clear on your strengths and opportunities. Ask yourself: How do I show up when I am at my best? ...
  2. Reflect on what matters most to you. Ask yourself: What values matter most to me? ...
  3. Define your goals. Ask yourself: What do I most want to accomplish as a leader?
Jan 25, 2022

What are the qualities of a leader? ›

What is a Successful Leader?
  • Possess Self-awareness. One of the most important qualities of a good leader is self-awareness. ...
  • Garner Credibility. ...
  • Focus on Relationship Building. ...
  • Have a Bias for Action. ...
  • Exhibit Humility. ...
  • Empower the Team. ...
  • Stay Authentic. ...
  • Present Yourself as Constant and Consistent.
Sep 12, 2022

What is the most important task before leadership? ›

Setting the vision

Creating an exciting, ambitious vision for the future of your company—something that will inspire all your employees and interest them in working hard to achieve—is the first step in effective leadership in an entrepreneurial business.

Why do leaders fail to lead? ›

Leadership failure can be caused by many factors including the leader's lack of experience, poor communication skills, and conflicts with other leaders. Leaders need to put their best foot forward at all times so they do not risk losing the respect of those around them or undermining their authority as a leader.

What is the weakest leadership style? ›

The Micromanager Leader

There's no way around it—micromanagers are seen as leaders who are constantly hovering and don't trust employees to do their job. This can lead to low morale and high turnover rates.

What is the hardest part of leading? ›

Providing inspiration. As a leader, your team is looking to you to provide inspiration and motivation to complete their work. This can feel tough in a challenging work environment or if you're not feeling motivated yourself. To inspire others, help your colleagues to focus on the value their work creates.

What is the strongest leadership trait? ›

Responsibility & Dependability

One of the most important qualities a leader can have is a sense of responsibility and dependability. This means displaying those traits in your individual work, but also demonstrating them in your interactions with others.

What is the most important skill of a good leader? ›

The ten most important leadership qualities
  1. Communication. The ability to communicate is deemed an important leadership quality by many. ...
  2. Set a good example. ...
  3. Readiness to take on and give up responsibility. ...
  4. Motivation. ...
  5. Recognise and foster potential. ...
  6. Tolerate mistakes. ...
  7. Flexibility. ...
  8. Set goals and expectations.

What is the best leadership style and why? ›

Democratic. Democratic leadership is one of the most popular leadership styles because it involves input from the entire team and fosters employees' sense of ownership in their work.

What are the 4 C's of leadership? ›

The importance of the four C's in leadership: Candor, Commitment, Courage and Competence are necessary to maintain strong and effective soldiers. A reflection of a good leader shows in his followers.

What are the 4 mindset for effective leadership? ›

According to recent studies, great leaders tend to exhibit the following four traits: people-centrism, purpose-centrism, learning-centrism, and versatility. Here is a summary of these characteristics as well as some ideas on how you can make mindset shifts to apply them to improve your own leadership abilities.

What are the four pillars of leadership? ›

To do this leaders must emphasize the four pillars of integrity, accountability, learning and communication.

Are leaders born or made? ›

How Are Leaders Made? Many people have begun to acknowledge that most leaders are made rather than born. While a natural affinity for leadership is always appreciated, many employees need consistent practice and skill-building resources to become talented leaders.

What are 3 major features of an effective leader? ›

Characteristics of an Effective Leader
  • Ability to Influence Others. ...
  • Transparency—to an Extent. ...
  • Encourage Risk-Taking and Innovation. ...
  • Integrity and Accountability. ...
  • Act Decisively. ...
  • Demonstrate Resilience.
Oct 4, 2018

What are 3 characteristics all leaders should have? ›

Honest - Serves Others - Communicates Well. Communication - Ability to Delegate Tasks - Positive. Confidence - Recognizes Employees - Intuition.

What are the 4 keys to influence others? ›

Across all 4 of these influencing skills — political savvy, self-promotion, building trust, and networking — context is important. The goal is to influence others, not manipulate them.

How do you lead and influence others more effectively? ›

How to Dramatically Increase Your Influence as a Leader
  1. Provide opportunities for wins. ...
  2. Believe in your people. ...
  3. Serve others before yourself. ...
  4. Give trust so you can earn trust. ...
  5. Think bigger for others—even bigger than they think of themselves. ...
  6. Truly connect with people. ...
  7. Invest in the success of others.

How do you lead through people? ›

Michael Burcham
  1. Here's 3 Reasons Why:
  2. Leading Through Others Has 5 Parts:
  3. Speak with Clarity. The journey of leading through others begins with a conversation to create clarity around your objective or the issue of your concern. ...
  4. Frame the Approach. ...
  5. Coach with Questions. ...
  6. Set Perspective. ...
  7. Follow Up. ...
  8. Summary:
Oct 14, 2020

What are the 3 C's of change leadership? ›

Conclusion. Typically, people fear change, so they must understand its context and process. Neglecting these steps in organizational change management may cause the plan to fail. Consider the 3Cs— communication, capability, connection, and culture if you want it to succeed.

What are the three C's of leadership? ›

The next time you are leading your team, focus on your mindset and decide to be a three-C leader: competent, committed and with strong character. When we do that, our employees win, and when they win, we all win.

What are the three C's of change management? ›

The Three C's of Change Management: Communication, Collaboration and Commitment. Effective change management is needed more than ever as organizations worldwide face constant disruptions due to the pandemic, economic shifts, supply chain issues and more.

Why do people choose not to lead? ›

Three perceived risks that hold them back, according to research. “Resentment,” “competition,” and “blame”; “aggressive” and “pushy.” These are a sample of the words that respondents in our recent study associated with stepping up to lead.

How can I be a leader at work without being bossy? ›

There are several ways to combat bossiness like:
  1. Embracing a team mentality.
  2. Showing appreciation towards direct reports.
  3. Eliminating micromanagement.
  4. Having an open-door communication policy.
  5. Delegating authority.
  6. Practicing humility.
Jan 6, 2021

What is the meaning of leading from the front? ›

“Leading from the front” means being visible and engaging at the front while still being able to see the forest through the trees. It is a matter of perspective. As a leader, you simply cannot be “in the front” of all processes in your area of responsibility and maintain the necessary perspective.

What are the 5 ways of leading? ›

5 Ways To Lead Your Team More Effectively
  • Create an environment of leadership. At all levels. ...
  • Make the team feel safe. Management and leadership are different disciplines. ...
  • Actively manage through adaptive change. This is critical in combat as in business. ...
  • Be a servant to your team. ...
  • Always eat last.
Feb 18, 2015

Do shepherds lead from behind or in front? ›

They are expected to guide and nourish opportunity. They nurture and docent their flock who follow and pave the path, fueling the mission's light ahead as the shepherd leads from behind.

What does leading from the middle mean? ›

It can be a world-class juggling act. Effectively leading from the middle, dealing with competing priorities, means meeting demands from the top while managing the needs of your team. The key to success is developing leadership skills that are critical for success today and in the future.

What does leading mean in the Bible? ›

“Leadership is the act of influencing/serving others out of Christ's interests in their lives so they accomplish God's purposes for and through them,” according to Bill Lawrence, president of Leader Formation International, at Bible.org.

How do you explain leading on someone? ›

Meaning of lead someone on in English

to persuade someone to believe something that is untrue: All that time she'd been leading him on (= pretending she liked him), but she was only interested in his money.

What are the 3 C's of effective leadership? ›

My training and experiences in the Army provided valuable insights into the principles and guidance into the makings of a true leader, none more impressive than the three Cs: competence, commitment and character. It may seem self-evident, but leaders must be competent — that's a non-negotiable.

What are the 3 F's of leadership? ›

Among many of the principles of leadership that I try to teach to young supervisors and leaders is the Principle of the Three “F's.” Specifically, they are “Friendly,” “Fair” and “Firm.”

What is the best way to lead a sheep? ›

Hold the sheep against your braced knees with one hand under the chin and one on the rump. Turn the sheep's head to the rear while forcing the rump down against your leg with your other hand. When the sheep is no longer standing on its feet, lift the front leg and sit the sheep securely on its rump.

Can you lead from the back? ›

Leading from behind, however, often places leaders in a supporting role. This may feel counter-intuitive and require swallowing a bit of pride, but it can be the most effective way to produce wide-spread innovation. The goal is to enable your team members to emerge as innovators and leaders themselves.

Why do shepherds have a hooked staff? ›

A shepherd's crook is a long and sturdy stick with a hook at one end, often with the point flared outwards, used by a shepherd to manage and sometimes catch sheep. In addition, the crook may aid in defending against attack by predators. When traversing rough terrain, a crook is an aid to balance.

What does it mean to lead from the top down? ›

Top-down management depends on a hierarchical style of leadership where the highest level of team members are tasked with making the decisions, and the lower-level team members follow directions to carry them out.

How do you become a great middle leader? ›

Certain personal and professional qualities make a good middle leader – resilience, self-awareness, critical-thinking and emotional intelligence are all vital. A middle leader needs to be able to manage their emotions and those of others, and to develop and sustain strong relationships with their team and beyond.

How do you become a middle leader? ›

10 Tips for New Middle Leaders
  1. Have a clear vision. Know where you want your department/area of responsibility to be heading within a clear timeframe. ...
  2. Know and support your team. ...
  3. Be resilient. ...
  4. Get support. ...
  5. Hold your values. ...
  6. Know the strengths and weaknesses. ...
  7. Don't hide away from crucial conversations. ...
  8. Get to know your pupils.
Jan 23, 2018


1. Leadership Explained in 5 minutes by Simon Sinek
(Marc Yu)
2. How to lead in a crisis | The Way We Work, a TED series
3. Leading From Behind - Matt Orr
4. Leading From Behind
(Robert J Ballantyne)
6. What Is "Leading From Behind?" — Management Tips from the CEO of BETA Technologies
(See Change Sessions)
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