Leading from Behind

With the Advent/Christmas season beginning in just a few weeks, I find myself once again returning to thoughts of humility as they apply to leadership-followership (see my older post on Humility or Unity).

In Chapter 6 of Embracing Followership, on the contributions of followership, I list “Guiding from Behind.” Otherwise known as leading up, the idea is the value and opportunity for offering influence from a place at the back of the pack rather than the front of the line.

Think of the shepherd or the cowboy who doesn’t herd the animals by racing ahead out front, but rather wrangles them by coming behind and alongside to ensure that each one keeps moving toward the destination.

Often times, the titular leader may indeed be best positioned out front, which means that others—followers—may need to take on the role of guiding from behind, if each group member is going to head toward the same goal together. There are too many things that can happen within the ‘herd’ that the out-front leader will be unaware of and may impede the organization’s success and progress; someone at the back who is ensuring that everyone moves forward together is a valuable service to the group.

Generally, the idea of leading from behind (a slight variation on ‘guiding from behind’), can refer to someone of subordinate title being the primary director, influencer, and shaper of the group’s endeavor.

I’m living in such a scenario at the moment. And it’s excellent.

I’m currently part of a facilitation team responsible for an organizational leadership development process. The team consists of myself and 3 other peers (same role as me in other parts of the organization), along with our ‘wrangler’, a man who is technically several levels down on the org chart, and yet is responsible for directing our deliberations and implementation of this training process.

Although his usual role description doesn’t give him much in the way of authority for anything of this scope, his particular abilities and perspective are exactly what our working group needs.

In years past, I personally held his current role and wrangler responsibilities, so I can appreciate what skills he employs in carrying out this act of leadership. And even though, by ability and experience, I could potentially fulfill the wrangler duties for this facilitation team, I’m so grateful that I don’t have to.

In this case, his act of leading from behind has been incredibly freeing for me. His acceptance of the various reporting, administrative, and planning aspects necessary for our group to function has enabled me to explore new areas of contribution, especially in the realms of curriculum design and process management. And I’m really enjoying those opportunities.

In fact, I find this dynamic so life-giving that I did something a bit odd.

While we might often hear of leaders changing roles and bringing favored staff members along with them (something many operating in the sphere of politics hope for and expect), I took an upside-down approach with our wrangler.

Over the last 2 years, we had worked together in the exact same setup, managing our leadership development process for a previous cohort. When it came time to establish the facilitation team for this next cohort, I made an ultimatum: Wrangler, if you’ll stay and serve again, then I’ll stay. But if you don’t, I won’t.

His contribution was so vital, so freeing, so valuable in creating an environment where I felt like I could lead and express my own gifts, that I wouldn’t have it any other way. If he, in what’s technically a follower role, wasn’t going to continue to be involved, I wasn’t interested in trying to express my influence or leadership in this particular forum. His excellence as a follower was absolutely necessary for me to offer my own best contributions.

Plus, it’s always healthy to ensure that we, in our leadership roles, have ample opportunities to be exercising submission to others, and to practice humility as well.

So, in this season of thanksgiving, leading quickly into a significant season of humility, I want to once again honor and acknowledge the importance of every member contributing to the group’s endeavors, and to esteem the value of those who lead & guide from behind. It’s not the easiest role: I know he sometimes doubts what authority, expertise, or right he has to make decisions or weigh-in on a particular issue. But he perseveres in the ambiguity and wrestles with the sense of inadequacy, and to his credit, he is primarily responsible for one of the most impactful personal development ventures that I’ve been a part of in my 13 years of experience.

Thanks, Wrangler. Keep doing what you’re doing, being who you are. Selfishly, your engagement makes it all the more fun, life-giving, and possible for me to be who I am as well. Under those circumstances, humility and submission to you are not a problem or a challenge.

I hope that you, leaders and followers alike, will have similar opportunities to benefit from the service and leadership of those operating from behind. Be sure to seek, encourage, and participate in such dynamics; they are an untapped pool of resources for organizational effectiveness and individual role satisfaction.


For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and  A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017) —

along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.

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