The Arguments for and against “Leading from Behind”

This phrase of “Leading from Behind” has been used by many in the White House and Congress lately. Some say that this is an appropriate strategy that allows the US to influence situations from behind the scenes without getting fully engaged. With this approach, the US encourages other nations and coalitions to step up and take the lead with the US providing a supporting role. To the contrary, others say that the US as the last super-power, should always be visibly out in front leading the way to deal with crises around the world. With this approach, those who disagree are labeled as isolationists who want to retreat from the world stage thus inviting another terrorist attack on the US.
While both points of view have some merit, let me be perfectly clear, good leaders do not lead from behind. This catch phrase reflects a weak strategy that the US falls back on when it’s unsure of how best to respond to the latest crisis or handle multiple crises simultaneously. That’s not good leadership. By all the polls, Americans are tired of war and over 70% say that we should either maintain our current level of involvement or reduce the US’s role in the world. We cannot be the policeman for the world. I say this not as an isolationist, but as a practical citizen who recognizes that the US does not have the resources and most importantly, the will of the American people to sustain a policy to get involved in virtually every conflict by insisting that it’s in our nation’s best interest. To lead, our elected leaders have to be clear about where we are going and why and give weight to the opinions of Americas because they are the ones we ask to go fight and die in some foreign land. If we do get involved then we need to take command and control of the process both in public and behind closed doors. We must be willing to commit the resources needed and learn from Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan that fighting insurgents within a population is a mistake. When the enemy does not wear uniforms and can melt back unrecognizable into the local populations after a battle, we cannot win such conflicts on the battlefield. In these cases, a diplomatic solution must be found.

Paul Okum has 40 years’ experience with the Federal Government in the Departments of Transportation, Interior, Army, and Defense in leadership positions, including being a US Army officer and a director of a human resources office in the Department of Defense. Okum has written “Leadership DNA,” a guide book about identifying, selecting, and developing natural born leaders. The book also explains how to deal with poor performing leaders before they cripple an organization.
For more information about Paul Okum and “Leadership DNA,” visit

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