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Leading from Behind

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anna Marie Schuh
November 8, 2016

Recently, I have been reviewing the literature on leadership as the presidential campaign rhetoric has heated up. Observing the contrast between theory and the presidential campaign language about leadership has made me wonder what successful leaders have said about leadership. Consequently, I began a search for quotes that might surface a common theme in successful leadership language.

schuh-1Two philosophers and an emperor provide the foundation for leadership language. Aristotle noted, “He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.”   Napoleon added, “A leader is a dealer in hope.” Lao Tzu summarizes, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” These three quotes suggest a leader is a guide who understands those led and optimistically directs their efforts to the goal.

United States presidents are prominent leaders who provide an American perspective on leadership language. George Washington counseled, “Remember that it is the actions, and not the commission that make the officer, and that there is more expected from him, than the title. ” Jefferson warned, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” John Quincy Adams, both a president and the son of a president, suggested, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” These quotes suggest our early leaders thought of leadership as beginning with character, particularly a character that models behavior.

Abraham Lincoln provided two quotes that help us understand leadership better. He advocated the importance of followers by noting, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent” and he warned, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Dwight Eisenhower defined leadership as “…the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it…” and explained what leadership is not when he said, “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” John Kennedy emphasized, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” However, it was Lyndon Johnson who identified the key to presidential leadership when he said, “Doing what is right isn’t the problem. It is knowing what is right.”

schuh-2First Lady Rosalynn Carter provided a female perspective when she observed, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt furthered the notion that leadership is about using relationships with others to move them in the right direction when she remarked, “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.” Grace Murray Hopper who invented the first compiler for a computer programming language consolidated the female perspective when she pointed out that, “You manage things; you lead people.”

No review of leadership quotes is complete without the military perspective. General and Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed both successful and unsuccessful leadership. He identified successful leadership when he said, Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” He described problematic leadership when he noted,

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

General Norman Schwarzkopf added, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” General Douglas McArthur expanded on the leadership definition when he noted,

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

schuh-3The final quote comes from Nelson Mandela, a leader in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Mandela advised,

“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.”

In recent years, the leading from behind perspective has been maligned by various politicians. However, Mandela’s explanation of the leading from behind is consistent with the perspectives of other leaders noted in this column.

All the leadership quotations have two common aspects: a humble leader and a leader, with character, who leads by example. Humble leaders value followers and do not seek credit for followers’ accomplishments. Instead, they celebrate those accomplishments. Leaders who lead by example focus on hope and goals rather than fear and orders. The best leaders inspire followers to do greater things through uplifting language and modeled behavior.


Author: Anna Marie Schuh is currently an associate professor and MPA program director at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches political science and public administration. She retired from the federal government after 36 years. Her last assignment involved management of the Office of Personnel Management national oversight program.

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One Response to Leading from Behind

  1. ruby Alex Reply

    November 1, 2017 at 8:00 am

    great article thanks for sharing

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