I learned from a news paper that the President said the country will take a position to “Lead from Behind” on internal conflict issue on a Middle East country in his speech. I also learned the phrase is the borrowing from a notable African-origin politician's biography, and that “Lead from Behind” is an antithesis to “Lead from Front.”

To me this expression sounds pretty illogical for logical English as a language, even though it’s a simile, because you do not push the trains usually with a locomotive fixed at the rear.

Although it is clear that he does not want to make positive involvement in internal matters of a Middle East country, I’m looking for the exact meaning of “Lead from behind” in this particular case.

Does it mean;

  1. It (His country) will pull the wire from behind the scenes, or,

  2. It will cooperate with but not enter, or

  3. It will play second fiddle, or

  4. It will sit on the fence?

Which is closer to as an interpretation of his remark? Can you give me exact meaning of his quote if you have something else?

  • 1
    'Lead from Behind' is also a management style similar to Servant leadership
    – user9682
    Jun 27 '11 at 0:01
  • Given that this expression is being used by a major player within a conflict still in a fluid state, I think it's slightly naive to think we can establish exactly what it means in terms US policy implementation. Obama is a clever man with competent advisors; he is hardly likely to commit himself to any particular option by saying exactly what will happen. Jun 27 '11 at 0:43
  • 3
    "You do not push the trains usually with a locomotive fixed at the rear." Thomas the Tank Engine would lead me to believe otherwise.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Jun 27 '11 at 1:35
  • might be off-topic if your question is about the politics instead of the origin/normal meaning of the phrase
    – Louis Rhys
    Jun 27 '11 at 3:40
  • 2
    I've heard "lead from behind" most often with the meaning in this quote, that a leader with this style subtly convinces people to do what he or she wants rather than telling them, so that they feel they are making the choice themselves: "...a leader is like 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."
    – aedia λ
    Jun 27 '11 at 15:22

The Mandela quote is in a different context i feel. “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.” Mandela here is definitely saying that Leading from Behind means that the leader should step back when the group or organisation or nation is celebrating something and step in to the front only when there is need for him/her to lead from the front.

So if we refer to Mandela's quote, then what Obama's statement means is quite remarkable. It would mean that the US won't get involved in the Libya issue but will be there to take credit by staying behind the scenes if things get better.

Another way to look at it would be that it was a diplomatic sort of a response to the matter at hand. Obama washed all responsibility off his hands in a manner of speaking.

  • The question is about the meaning of a phrase, not recent politics.
    – apaderno
    Jun 26 '11 at 23:03
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    I did explain what i knew of the phrase. What i just wanted to add was it is probably being used in a different way than what it might actually mean. and well i can write whatevr i want :|
    – Vivek Jha
    Jun 26 '11 at 23:06
  • You can write what you want, if that is on-topic with the question. I would rather say you cannot write whatever you want.
    – apaderno
    Jun 26 '11 at 23:09
  • It is definitely not off-topic , what a phrase means is not independent of the context it is used in.
    – Vivek Jha
    Jun 26 '11 at 23:11
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    As this is not politics.SE, your opinion about politics is off-topic in a site where the questions are about the meaning of English phrases.
    – apaderno
    Jun 26 '11 at 23:16

Oishi-san: What the President means is that he wants other nations, especially in the European Union to step up and take an active, if not actually principal role in Libya.

By the way, the phrase is"lead from behind," not "lead from the behind." The latter would mean lead from the buttocks. ;)

  • @Robusto-san. Thanks for your concrete answer, and advice on my careless insertion of 'the' behind. I was half alert to that point when I'm writing, but failed.
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Jun 26 '11 at 23:35

The phrase normally used is lead from the front, which means "take an active role in what one is urging and directing others;" lead from the behind seems to have the opposite meaning.

  • When you say “Back up (or manipulate) from behind” or “Sit in backseat,” it is quite natural, but “Lead from behind” still sounds illogical and confusing to me as English, regardless who coined and who said it. At least, it sounds somewhat excusatory to me, if not confusing. I know language isn’t arithmetic. Maybe I’m nitpicking.
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Jun 27 '11 at 21:40
  • I probably find it less confusing because my first language has similar expressions. The expression is used figuratively.
    – apaderno
    Jun 27 '11 at 22:00
  • @kiamalauluno. Figuratively, not arithmetic, Well, it makes sense.
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Jun 27 '11 at 23:16

I believe that the expression comes from a Gilbert and Sullivan play, and the original context was that a low-ranking person (a "back-bencher" in British Parliamentary terms), would be a de facto leader.

Obama stands this, and other expressions, on their head. America is the "official" leader, but he wants this country to take a "back seat," and give other countries more visibility. In this regard, Obama wants to act as a "puppet master." But my belief is that is not the original context.

  • As I wrote to kiamulauluno, 'Take a back seat' seems to be most fitted to the phrase in question now by going through several answers .
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Jun 28 '11 at 11:24
  • @Yoichi: I was trying to contrast that phrase with what I believe to be the more normal usage. That's why I brought it up again (in a different context than yours).
    – Tom Au
    Jun 28 '11 at 12:59
  • "He lead his regiment from behind" appears in the Duke of Plaza-Toro's Act I song in Gilbert & Sullivan's The Gondoliers, but it's more about how the Duke stayed at the rear away from fighting, "but when away his regiment ran, his place was at the fore-o!"
    – UtopiaLtd
    Jul 3 '11 at 21:51
  • @Tom Au. I thought “Leading from the behind” is physically impossible concept. You can lead a thing from the front and push a thing from behind. You can command a person from back seat. But you can’t lead a thing from behind, because it flexes if you keep pushing. However I found that “Leading from behind” was a new neology in the following sentence of New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen in his article titled “Leading from Behind” (October 31, 2011)* “Leading from behind” - a phrase first used by a White House adviser in a New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza - was smart policy in Libya.”
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Nov 2 '11 at 2:08

Have you ever heard the old saying, "The man is the head of the family, but the woman is the neck?"

In many traditional societies, the paterfamilias or "family father" is considered the undisputed leader of the family. His word is law. Yet often, his wife has so much influence over him that she is the "invisible" leader; things ultimately go the way that she wants, even though she is not the visible "head". Instead, she's the "neck", telling the head where to point.

That's the idea of "leading from behind". You are not the visible leader, openly calling the shots and taking the credit. Rather, you influence things without making a spectacle of yourself.

Please note that there is no sense of duplicity or dishonesty in the term. On the contrary, it's somewhat self-deprecating in the sense that you're saying, in effect, "I will help as much as I can with the decision-making process, but I don't want anyone saying or thinking that I'm the one doing the work. Instead, I will try to influence things from within rather than demand that people do things my way."

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