Leadership is an honor and a responsibility.
It’s something the world will always need. The act of leading is how we create momentum around ideas, initiatives and progression. It’s a choice and a privilege to lead others.
Leadership is also a skill. It can be learned and cultivated, but I believe some people are just naturally gifted with it. In that regard, there are fewer leaders in our world than followers. And to be candid, most people follow because it’s easier than leading.
Because leadership can be heavy.
That’s my truth, and what most leaders would probably tell you if they allowed themselves to be honest.
That’s not positive or negative, it’s just a representation of the weight that comes with leadership. This includes mental, emotional and sometimes physical weight. Humans look to leaders for guidance, answers and support. This simply requires a lot more energy to execute and sustain than being a follower.
I’ve been engaged in leadership roles since I was a young child.
- I led my younger brother and peers growing up.
- I was the captain of sports teams.
- I excelled at academics and competition.
- I served in leadership roles at different companies in my 20’s and 30’s.
- I’ve created various businesses and teams over the years.
- And now I lead my family, peers and clients in beautiful ways.
That’s where “leading from the back” comes in.
For decades I led from the front. I still do most of the time. I see the vision, set the pace and lead the execution. It’s my natural way of being. I thrive under pressure and enjoy the responsibility of strategy, direction and decision making.
However, I didn’t realize how heavy it was until recently. I didn’t realize how much energy it was requiring. I didn’t realize there was a different way to lead until I stepped back, literally.
I was on a hike at a retreat 2 years ago, and instead of charging ahead in front like I always do, I followed the advice of a mentor and chose to stay in the back. It was completely foreign to me. I’m never in the back. I’m always in the front, setting the pace, pushing forward so that followers have somewhere to go. I’m built for that.
But being in the back gave me a whole different way of being. It felt light and free. It offered a new perspective. It required way less energy.
So I stayed in the back and had an extraordinary experience.
Then I got home and reflected on what happened. By staying in the back I gave myself permission to rest and relax. I was still there in leadership form, but I allowed myself to take a break. This gave others permission to step up and lead. They had their own unique experience and I saw them. I saw them like I couldn’t see from the front.
And then I realized how important this was.
Empowerment & Rest
First, when we lead from the back we empower more people to step into their own form of leadership. We can still support them, but it’s completely different when they’re going first. When they’re failing. When they’re setting the pace. We can see them in a whole new way. We can still guide them without being in front.
Second, leading from the back gives us a break. It allows our nervous system to rest and recharge. Then we can come back better when we decide to be in the front again. I believe we all need a break every now and then to come back better. That’s why we retreat. That’s why we take breaks.
Some of you may not want a break. I get it. You’re wired to charge ahead and lead with passion. I was just like you! And I still admire that. I still have the same engine.
But what you may not realize is how much energy it’s requiring. How much weight it’s putting on your nervous system. How badly you could use a break if you just allowed yourself a bit of grace.
You can’t see this when you’re leading from the front. And you can’t feel it until you’re leading from the back.
Choosing to Lead from the Back
I’ve changed the way I lead in my life. I still lead from the front, but I look for ways to lead from the back.
- When I hike with my family and friends I choose to stay in the back half the time. I still select the hike and know the path, but I want them to guide. I want them to feel more confident navigating nature.
- When I support the people I work with I choose to let them go first more. I still set the strategy and I’m still there if they need something, but I want them to take the first step. I want them to take more ownership of their role.
- When I have meaningful conversations I choose to listen before speaking. I still ask intentional questions and hold space, but I want others to start the dialog. I want them to feel heard and witnessed.
Leading from the back is a different way of being.
It’s why great military commanders aren’t in the front lines. It’s why great CEOs aren’t doing the grunt work. It’s why great coaches ask questions before speaking or telling a story.
This isn’t a new concept, but it’s very true for me in this season of life. I’m choosing to lead from the back so I can get a different perspective. I’m choosing to lead from the back so I can recharge. I’m choosing to step back and see people around me emerge into their own leadership roles.
What about you?
Are you currently leading from the front or the back?
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Ali is a creator who's passionate about guiding people to their truth. That's a fancy way of saying he wants to help people realize their most authentic life. He's a father, husband, podcaster, blogger, technologist and many other things that inspire him to stay curious and learn. He's also a huge advocate for nature, hiking, adventure, testing physical limits and experiencing the natural world.