Leading from the Back

If you are anything like me, you probably have a shelf in your personal library reserved for books on leadership.  Most authors and experts in the area of leadership will advise us that a good leader leads by exerting influence. The clear call from most articles and books is for a strong, upfront leader blazing a trail.  We admire and at times idealize those “out in front” leaders who are creating a brave new world for us to follow. There is, however, an important part of leadership that is seldom talked about: mentorship.  The ability to take a second role, so someone else can learn to lead, is paramount to great leadership. Good leaders know how to lead from behind.

In 2000 I was part of planting a new church in the city of Winnipeg. At that time my father who had pastored large churches in our native Brazil had just returned to Canada. I told him of plans to plant a new church and asked him to take the lead in that endeavour. His reply to my request changed my understanding of good leadership. He simply said, “You lead… I will help.” And for the next ten years that is exactly what he did. My father’s expertise, wisdom, and support help me develop and grow.

Paul is a good example of an “out in front” leader who knew the importance of leading from the back.  In his ministry life he took time to mentor others, giving them the opportunity to lead. One of his mentees is motivated to continue on the tradition. Here is what he says to Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” 2 Timothy 2:2. What Paul is instructing Timothy to do is: learn, then teach teachable people who will teach teachable people. There are several pivotal consequences of good mentorship. They are:

  • Development – Allowing someone the opportunity to lead, while being supported, helps them develop their skills.
  • Continuity – Wouldn’t it be great if by the time you are ready to hang up your skates, there is someone ready to continue the race in your place? Those you have mentored can now continue what God has started with you, allowing a smooth transition in leadership with minimum disruption to the work.
  • Humility – It is a beautiful and humbling experience to see that God uses people other than us to accomplish great things. It lessens the sense that if something needs to be done right, it needs to be done by us.

So the next time you feel led to blaze a new trail, why not give someone else a machete and invite him or her along with you. Great leaders, able to leave a lasting legacy, are leaders who know the importance of “leading from the back”.

“Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.” ― Nelson Mandela

“Leading from the front requires the leader to lay out the steps from A to Z and delegate in order to accomplish each step in the right order.  Leadership from behind requires the leader to firmly understand and communicate Z (the end goal).” – The Social organization

Elton DaSilva
Executive Director