Leading from Behind

Building resilience is not a luxury, it is a 21st century imperative.

Judith Rodin, The Rockefeller Foundation

Power. When is it present? When is it absent? Where do you find it? How do you use it? What do you do when you don’t have it? How does one find internal power and authority in situations when one lacks external power and authority?

Many today feel trapped, powerless and without choices. They find themselves stuck in unhappy vocational situations doing work they do not like for people they like even less. The old adage seems more true than ever;  “working for someone else is like being on a sled dog team; unless you are the lead dog, you are always looking at the rear end (to be delicate) in front of you.”

Though we (Healing Leaders) do not buy into the anger and resentment inherent in the sled dog statement, we want to speak to the situation that most people in our world are currently facing; functioning under the authority and control of someone else’s leadership. It is not easy to be in a powerless while trying to make direct changes for the better in your life.

The door to internal power, choice and ability to change a situation is still open, if only a sliver. Instead of reacting passively and resentfully, we suggest considering the possibility of “leading from behind.”

Three choices exist for reclaiming power from while behind the “lead dog”:

  1. Leave it.

One cannot be blamed for avoiding pain. We are wired to defend ourselves in this way. It’s a bad idea to stare directly at the eclipse. Emotional pain is similar but more subtle. Our options in responding to it are many. There may be many reasons a person would stay in a painful situation, whether it is in the workplace or the home. Loyalty is often among them. When loyalty is called for, the option of leaving can be impossible. At least that is the perception. This is especially true given the pressures, fears and insecurities of our modern world. Walking away from a toxic situation is effective in protecting against toxicity. But it might be a journey out of the frying pan and into the fire. Exiting takes more courage than is available. The cost may be high.  Yet, it may be the best long term choice.

  1. Change it.

Changing a toxic situation is nice when it can be accomplished. Speaking up for a much needed raise, negotiating for improved conditions, reducing toxicity in some way can make a situation more tolerable. Perhaps the most pernicious quality of our “can do” mindset in our world is the illusion that we can change a toxic situation when we cannot. A wife pleads with her alcoholic husband to cut back on his drinking. A parent nags a teenager trying to change an attitude or behavior. The workplace is no different. You can plead. You can threaten. But if you are not the leader, you will be dependent upon someone else agreeing with you and making the changes you want. This dependence seems to be growing. Indeed, with a widened gap in economic status and increased concentrations of power, more and more people are learning what it is to be in a position where change cannot be accomplished. Not everyone has that level of control in his or her situation. Many of us find ourselves in this situation at some point in our lives.

  1. Choose it and learn within it.

If you cannot leave a toxic situation and you cannot change it, you have only one option short of suicide; learn to live with it. This means finding an internal power to raise your resilience. The good news is that there are many ways to claim power and connect with resources to build resilience in response to toxicity. It is often possible to do more than survive; it is possible to even thrive in the midst of the most horrendous situation. It is sometimes possible to insulate yourself from the toxicity. It is even possible to affect changes in the situation, indirectly, by focusing on your own needs and wants, even though you are not in charge. In fact, this “third way” is increasingly the hallmark of our times; controlling ourselves when we are not in control of our situation.  Managing one’s presence, self-defining, remaining rational when all seems in chaos and in doing so, practicing mature leadership, might well be called “Leading from Behind”.

Peace and Courage,


(Steve and Howard developed these points when thinking about a next book beyond Healing Leadership.)

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