Leading from Behind: Adaptive Leadership

A colleague named Shawna recently entered a group meeting late. As a result, she sat at the back of the room instead of her usual spot in the front. Later that day we debriefed about the event. She made several interesting observations about her team that she was not previously aware of. She learned that changing her vantage point provided her with new insights. I call this the ‘leading from behind’ principle.

I first learned this lesson during my graduate degree when we spent time doing hands-on activities which taught us about leadership. A memorable event was the day that six of us had to walk on a homemade pair of skis with rope handles (see photo). The goal was to cross a finish
line while keeping everyone on the planks. We learned that coordinating twelve legs was a daunting challenge. More importantly, we all learned an invaluable lesson about leading from behind.

Our team placed our chosen leader on the front of our skis. From this vantage point, his role was to to coordinate our efforts. However, we soon learned that he was the least equipped to do so. His position did not provide the ability to see those behind him. His voice voice was pointed the wrong way – away from his team –  instead of where they could hear him. Furthermore, it was difficult for everyone to watch his non-verbal cues as most of us could not even see him.

Instead, it was the person at the very back of the contraption who was best equipped to lead. This position afforded the best view of what was going on. They had the best location from which to project their voice. In addition, they could coach people who were not in sync because they saw what each individual was doing. Sometimes, leading from behind is by far the best way to lead!

I believe that leading from behind is an especially tough lesson to learn for people who think of themselves as, or are referred to, as ‘natural leaders’. After years of being pushed to the front, it can be difficult to choose to sit at the back of the meeting. Different tasks require different methods, but I suspect that leading from the front is over-utilized!

Which of these two roles – in front or behind – is your natural comfort zone? If you are like many, you may have never considered anything besides leading from the front. Does your leadership allow others to lead from behind? Do you intentionally develop team members who are skilled at leading from behind? Have you intentionally taken a position whereby you can lead from behind? If not, why not? Perhaps you’ll discover that it can be the best way to get things done!


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman