The Only Fruit Leading From Behind Produces Are Road Apples

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When I first heard the term “Leading from behind” (LFB) like many others who’ve based their career on taking the lead or helping others in the understanding of what true leadership entails: I was left a little perplexed.

Suddenly it was racing across media outlets as if this was some tried and tested strategy held in the bowels of some secret refuge where only a privileged few knew of its existence and were capable of implementing it. However, those of us that have made careers in the “leadership business” knew all too well: There is no such thing.

Today we’re witnessing more and more of the fallout that happens when this form of meme takes hold. Not only in politics, but when it also permeates through business, as well as society at large. Whenever the term “leadership” is paired with anything other than “leading.” Rest assured in the end what it will most likely be attached to is – losing.

Currently the Middle East is once again turning into a caldron for the express purpose of creating another deadly brew. Where this latest concoction ends up next is anyone’s guess. And guess is all we’ll have at our disposal for the ones “leading” this debacle are not subject to our interpretations of what we think they’ll do. They’ll lead and show us. Probably with disastrous or horrendous  implications. Yet this isn’t an isolated affair.

Once again Russian forces are not only flexing their muscle in regions many couldn’t find on a map, they’re looking at the world as many have done since the time of Vlad the Impaler never mind Vladimir Putin sizing up the how, where, why, and their ramifications of pushing into an administration that not only is not pushing back, but rather seems intent to double down on the LFB meme.

Whether one agrees or not with the strategy one thing can not be dismissed: Others that consider this as possible weakness of any sort, will move and lead themselves straight into, or against it.

Politics is not that different from business in certain areas. Many times when you see your competition deploying fool-hearty or visibly acting on faulty information: You move, you act, you push, you deploy, you _________(fill in the blank). What you won’t do – is do nothing.

Words matter, stance matters, nearly everything one says or does in a leadership position matters. Sometimes what was once seen as mundane or trivial can be misinterpreted for weakness, or disengagement where once it would be laughed at to even ponder such insinuations. e.g., Stating publicly one needs time to think as ever more aggression breaks out in formerly vanquished territories.

You can not be a leader no matter how large or small the stage part-time. For everything you say or do will be viewed, calculated, with strategies built for – as well as against – by all the other players as to initiate their own actions. Period.

Knowing and navigating this is an art-form within itself. Very few tread these waters successfully, never mind expertly. And so far we are seeing one after another wash up full of holes – unrepairable.

To put this into context there was a great scene in the movie Thirteen Days (200o/01, New Line Cinema) Where Dylan Baker portraying Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is standing in front of a wall sized map displaying the ship movements surrounding Cuba. A heated discussion flares into an argument where McNamara emphatically argues what the ships and their positions represent (I’m paraphrasing): “Can’t you see! This is language, not just a bunch of ships in the water!”

Agree or disagree with the actions back then, the underlying premise is unequivocal. Both sides were leading – till one didn’t. There was no participation trophy after the fact. One leader pointed the course going forward, the other led theirs away. Did Khrushchev take to the air waves claiming victory for now he was “Leading from behind?” Hardly.

This point can not be understated in its ramifications. Many people who believe they are well-informed, have a good grasp of politics, business, and/or world affairs will be celebrating Fathers Day. Yet, I would venture to say 1 out of 1000 has the slightest clue that earlier in the week the U.S. needed to scramble fighters to ward off two nuclear capable Russian bombers as they flew within 50 miles (yes 50 that’s not a typo) of the coast of California. If planes can be considered language and not just blips on a screen: What message is this trying to convey?

The meme “leading from behind” is a fancy way of saying “playing not to lose.” Intellectually it sounds intriguing. The idea can be made to sound esoteric, while at the same time leaving room for multiple ways of defensive posturing when one begins to be questioned whether or not the strategy is either working, or not. You can see the fallacy of this meme play out in mirror form over, and over again across the world of sports.

How many times has one witnessed their favorite team within spitting distance of winning with commanding leads only to watch in abject dismay as the opposing team rallies back snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?

Many of us that understand winning or leading know all to well exactly what happened. They switched from leading and playing for the win to – playing to win by not losing their lead. It never works. Some of the greatest upsets in sports history result from exactly this type of strategy or philosophy.

The only difference here is that in sports – it’s just a game. This strategy along with its tactics when applied to nations is far different. The visible results along with the myriad of unseen potential consequences are now becoming quite apparent for anyone willing to look.

If there is a bright side to any of this, I believe it’s lodged within the fact that a strategy – any strategy – can be changed. Nothing needs to be adhered to if it’s being bore out as to not be working. Or, producing results that may lead to even a more harmful or tumultuous events down the road.

It’s the willingness to admit what’s working, and what’s not, then adjust that makes leaders worth their salt. Regardless who’s at fault.

Leaders – lead. Not from the rear – but from the front – for all to see exactly what they are saying, what they mean, and what they intend to use as proof they mean what they say.

This is not something new, it has been this way for millennium. When leaders employ the now referenced LFB strategy, it’s just a rehash of ” playing not to lose.” And in the end unless one repels from this line of thinking that’s exactly where one will find themselves – on the losing side.

Leadership is about leading whether it be politics, business, or even within one’s own social network. For one thing has been proven over, and over, and over again.

The view only changes for the lead dog, never the rear. And you won’t find road apples at your favorite grocer. You’ll find them where they belong: In the dung heap of history.

© 2014 Mark St.Cyr