Reflections on Leading From Behind

Shepherd and flock of sheep

This week I was at a wedding rehearsal and ran into one of my former students. It was so good to see him and his wife again. A talented young couple, I always thought they offered amazing potential for the future of any church for which they would end up working. In fact, I helped him land a position as Worship Pastor at a large church. For those of you who are not familiar with these titles, a Worship Pastor is subordinate to the Senior Pastor and focuses on music and public worship.

As he and his wife sat down next to my wife and me, I expected to learn of all the exciting things going on in his life. I asked, “How are things going at the church?”

Creases formed on his forehead and his gaze pointed to the floor and I knew something was wrong. Then his eyes came up and met mine and in a tone of frustration he said, “We need you to come and give us a seminar on leadership.” I thought at first this was a formal invitation. But then I realized he was just expressing his frustration about the leadership of the church.

He went on to talk about the problem. My heart went out to him as I recalled experiencing those same frustrations when I was his age during my first ministry 40 years ago. In my case, I was the senior minister and my superiors were a team of elders who seemed to be stuck in a rut and unwilling to try anything new.

My former student went on to say that the senior pastor was going through a weekly routine. He had lost any sense of vision and his sermons were becoming repetitive. There was a “same-ole-same-ole” feeling about the church and it was not reaching out to its community like it had in former days.

It was sad to hear this coming from such a gifted young man. I know that young pastors must go through a learning process. Much of their frustration comes from their inexperience with actually working with people. People tend to have a mind of their own and they are not easy to lead (most people anyway).

But there was more here. I realized this young man had a huge vision for the church but he was working under the leadership of a man with a small vision. This dissonance was the source of his frustration.

At one point in our conversation, I made the suggestion, “Why don’t you lead from behind?” I mean, after all, he has the vision and the energy and the fresh spirit of innovation; why not use that energy to lead from behind?

His response was, “Oh no, I would never do that.”

Have you ever had the experience where you ruminate over a conversation you had and wish you had responded differently? I had that feeling with this conversation. The next day, I realized my friend had responded as he did because he had misunderstood what I was suggesting. To him, it sounded like I was proposing a mutiny, that he should bypass the authority of the pastor and take on the leadership of the church himself.

That was not at all what I was recommending. You see, to me leading from behind does not mean jumping into the front but remaining in the back and leading from there. This requires a willingness to divest oneself of the need for recognition and the honors given to successful leadership. Instead, one who leads from behind seeks only the ultimate success of the organization.

Leading from behind requires the use of indirect forms of leadership. Those who lead from behind create new visions by introducing ideas that capture the imagination. But they do so, not from a position of command and control, but through more subtle means.

  • They lead through their creativity.
  • They lead by showing not telling.
  • They lead by invitation not by giving directives.
  • They lead by painting a compelling vision of what the organization could be.
  • They lead by example and by the integrity of their character.
  • Their leadership is one of pull rather than push.

And they do all this without distributing blame for the present situation.

Such people often introduce new ideas into the organization that are at first rejected. Yet, years later these ideas surface in another context and become policy with no recognition of the original source of the idea. But those who lead from behind do not mind that at all, because their only concern is the success of the organization. That success satisfies them, even if they are the only ones aware of their contribution.

What has been your experience? Have you been in a situation like this young man? Please comment and let me know how you handled it.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

Credits
Photo by Gianluca Carnicella. Photo available at flickr.com under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license. Image modified for size and space.

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