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November 8, 2021


Leading from the Rear

While serving twenty-three years in the military, I always heard the phrase "lead from the front" and to me, it seemed to make perfect sense. After all, forward-placed leaders it was said can serve to show their team the way, demonstrate the willingness to endure the same hardships and challenges as their subordinates, and inspire loyal followership. I never challenged this thinking because it seemed so logical, but in my years after the military, I have come to see the benefits of leading from the rear. What?! That just doesn't sound "right." How can one lead if they are at the back, where the action is NOT? Let me explain...

My premise is based on one of the primary tenets of leadership; the growth and development of subordinates. By leading from the rear, the leader can "get out of the way" and let their superstars shine. The leader is no longer taking on obstacles and challenges directly; their team members are. This will inspire critical thinking and analysis and facilitate, often times out of necessity, more collaborative teamwork. In addition, when the leader is on the front lines, their presence can often overshadow the tremendous work being accomplished by their team. With the leader at the back of the fray, the individual team members can garner the visibility they deserve as they strive to overcome challenges and work toward the objective at hand. Finally, by leading from the rear, leaders will have a broader perspective of what is going on. This could ensure the leader identifies threats to their team earlier which allows for a refocusing of effort and resources in order to fend off the threat. Don't get me wrong, leading from the rear does not mean an abdication of leadership; it is a manner of enabling members of the team to rise in a conspicuous manner, develop critical skills, and prove themselves as independent entities. There is no looking to the leader at the front for direction; the team members get to set the direction.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter if the leader is poised at the front or the rear. What is important is that the leader embraces the opportunity to work for the advancement of their team members rather than themselves. Sometimes this means posturing leadership from the rear and while this may sound foreign to some, it may be just the thing needed to add a unique element of personnel development to the equation.

Original article posted on LinkedIn by author Dr. Brian Ward, Evaluation team member at Western Governors University.

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