I heard an interview this morning on NPR with FEMA Administrator William Craig Fugate.  He was talking about the role FEMA plays in relation to state and local governments during disasters like Hurricane Sandy.  In that respect, FEMA has to strike a delicate balance: many think FEMA should play no role and others believe it should be granted even more authority.  Personally, I think its role is just right.  Why?  Because FEMA leads from behind.

Ultimately, it is the governors of the individual states who are in charge of disaster response, and they tell FEMA what they need, where they need it, and how quickly it has to be done.  Yet it is FEMA that empowers the governors to lead, which is what leading from behind is all about — empowering others to lead.

Linda Hill, faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative at Harvard, writes, “For now and into the coming decade or so, the most effective leaders will lead from behind, not from the front.”  She argues that if innovation is the key to competitiveness, a good leader builds a community that has the capacity to innovate – and that means empowering people to do so.

Recently, President Obama came under attack by some for saying that the United States lead from behind in Libya.  The rebels on the ground took the upfront lead, but the United States led from behind and ultimately, the mission was accomplished.  So why the attacks?  I think it often has to do with an old-school, “macho” attitude we’ve come to expect as we’ve grown used to leaders standing in front of us, giving speeches and expecting all to follow.  And while that type of leadership certainly feels more familiar, I think that it only works in certain situations.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela equates a great leader with a shepherd: “he stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along, they are being directed from behind.”

I’m seeing this “leading from behind” concept in action with the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority here in Pittsburgh (full disclosure: they’re also a client!).  The ICA has empowered the City of Pittsburgh to create a task force on nonprofit participation in the City’s financial needs. The ICA isn’t forming the task force, but rather giving the City the power to do so.

“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,” Nelson Mandela.