Stepping Back to Lead

At U of T and in Toronto more generally, we are taught that one becomes a leader by taking the lead. If there is a club or company you think should exist, you start it. If there is a comment that needs saying in class, you say it. If there is any need for leadership, you step forward to lead.

How we're often taught to be a leader. (via
How we’re often taught to be a leader. (via

I, myself, have often become very wrapped up in this “leaders take the lead” mentality. I joined course unions, committees and teams like nobody’s business. I spoke up in class and wrote articles for newspapers about things that I thought needed saying.

But while wrapping myself up in this mentality, I forgot an important lesson: that leading from behind is an equally effective style of getting things done.

The first time I learned this lesson was from a friend who had a significant martial arts training and who hadn’t grown up in North America (both important as I think they offer different perspectives on leadership).

As we were discussing the different styles of leadership, he gave me the example of a group on a hike where the lead and the ‘sweep’ (at the end of the group) communicate with each other to make sure no stragglers get left in the woods. The ‘leader’ in front and ‘leader’ in back are equally important in such circumstances.

Is this leading from the front or behind? Depends on your perspective. (via
Is this leading from the front or behind? It depends on your perspective. (via

As we continued talking, the friend told me that he sometimes found the ‘lead from the front’ style offensive as those that lead from the front are often there because they assume they know best.

I could see where he was coming from. Not everyone who leads from the front is presumptuous, but anyone who has been in a group project with one dictatorial group member knows what it feels like.

So while re-thinking this idea of leadership recently, I figured I should be more aware about how much space I take up in conversations (I can talk a lot) and, when necessary, step forward with others, not for them.

Facilitating discussions instead of leading them, particularly in an evaluative environment like school, can be a difficult transition. But I think it’s important to remember that the rat race environments that encourage certain neuroses aren’t the only way to approach leadership. In other contexts, it can be much more effective to listen to what’s going on and take a step backwards to lead.

– Kay

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