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Leading From Behind: The Shepherd’s Way

There’s a marvelous article in the Harvard Business Review on “leading from behind” and “leadership as collective genius.” Professor Linda Hill is chair of the Harvard Business School’s High Potential Leadership program and an active researcher in the field of leadership. Leadership in the future, she says, will require “leading from behind” to create environments where people working in teams can contribute their skills for collaborative problem solving and innovation through the joint creativity of diverse teams. (See the article here.)

She compares this process to the work of a shepherd. Shepherds lead from the rear of the flock, helping them navigate and creating an environment where the more nimble and agile are able to run ahead so that the others can follow. The task of the leader is to help individuals flourish in their roles, setting boundaries for the flock, and helping to resolve tensions. Leading from behind is particularly important when the goal is to encourage innovation, discovery and implementation of new ideas and processes. Innovation flourishes where leaders both unleash and harness the creativity of the team, Hill says. “You have to create an environment in which” all the participants are “engaged and in which the collective talent of team members is tapped by having everyone take the lead at some point.”

Nelson Mandela and “Leading from Behind”

In more recent time the concept of “leading from behind” has been associated with President Barrack Obama and said to be a foolish idea. This confuses politics with leadership, and seriously fails to understand the concept. “Leading from Behind” is not about hanging back and failing to lead. Nelson Mandela, a leader admired world-wide for his strength of character explains the true meaning of “leading from behind.”

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” (Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 1995, 22).

“Leading from behind” is about empowering others to lead in addition to yourself. It’s about being in front when there is danger but allowing others to join in when there is success. Leading from behind is the pattern of strong, not weak, leadership.

Good and Bad Shepherds

Some years ago while traveling in Tibet we met a small shepherd by the side of the road. Through our translator we asked if he went searching for lost sheep. “Yes!” he replied, “it’s my job to take care of them.” Explaining more fully he told us that his 400 sheep were owned by ten families in the village who shared their care. This was his day to take the flock to pasture.” He seemed to us the perfect picture of a “good shepherd.”

The next day, returning along the same road, we met a shepherd with 1,000 sheep. Through our translator we asked the same question, “Do you search for lost sheep.” His reply surprised us. “No,” he said, “there was no pointing searching for lost sheep.” We asked, “What happens to the lost ones?” Animals ate them, he thought, or perhaps they just died in the wilderness. What was the reason for this callous attitude to his sheep we wondered. Eventually he told us, “The sheep belong to the wealthy man who hires me.” Well, there was the answer. He was like the “hired man” of John 10 who runs from the flock when the wolf comes. They weren’t his sheep. Why should he care what becomes of them? We called him the “bad shepherd.” Jesus, the good shepherd, leads us “from behind,” making it possible for us to run ahead as we are able, navigating gently, and allowing and encouraging the sheep to work together as a body.

I find it fascinating that researchers at the very pinnacle of the academic world are discovering through their research that the pattern of leading through serving that Jesus taught is at the heart of effective leadership. The Scriptures are not only true theology, they are true wisdom for living.


  1. President Obama’s re-election slogan is ‘leading from behind’. His distractors don’t understand this selection. I know this is how a true shepherd leads but didn’t know of an article. Thanks.

  2. Wow…this is great! This is my natural style but I did not know it had a name! I was so excited when my CEO shared this insite with me. I have been transforming as a school leader and I have made great progress with my staff. I put them in charge often to be role models for their peers by leading workshops, committees, and meetings. It’s taken over a year for them to take me up on my offer for them to get in front of the team….but they are doing it and it feels really good!! Thanks for your article, I plan to share it with my staff.

  3. thank you I all ways thought that a leader should serve and care and encourage others to take a lead role and to use there talent and abilities to lead or help others. As a pastor it was good for me to read this thank you very much.

  4. I call it surround sound love. Be there to catch, and to shine light on achievement and simultaneously on the road ahead.
    A good shepherd is the same as a good mother.

  5. Sorry to have to disagree with you. Jesus did not lead from behind. Sheep are too dumb and needy to lead from behind. John 10: 3-5 clearly states that Jesus “goes before them” and the sheep follow him. I’m not saying this won’t work with people at some stage of maturity, but not with sheep. I have no idea where you got the idea Jesus leads from behind.

    • Thank you, Steve. Nelson Mandela is the source of the quote about leading from behind. He says it was a principle he learned as a young boy growing up in rural Africa that sometimes it is best to allow the sheep to find their own path but at other times the leader must stand to the front. This is characteristic of good leaders and both methods can be seen in the life of Jesus and in how he leads his people today.

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Guy Saffold

I’ve observed leaders for many years, always asking the question, “What should a person do to lead in more Christian ways?” It’s often not an easy question to answer in the midst of the day-to-day events that whirl around a leader. Here I explore some of the dilemmas and answers. I also post some devotional thoughts about the application of biblical teaching.