“It is betterIMG_1785 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

In business management, much has been written about the concept of leading from behind. And, as expected, there is a lot of debate and discussion surrounding the usage and misusage of the concept. Yet, why do we talk about this so much more in the world of for-profit business compared to the world of international nonprofits, much less humanitarian response?

 As Sophie Johnson states in her piece The Theory of Leading from Behind: “…since leading from behind promotes cooperative initiatives from within teams, this style of leadership can be a good fit for businesses dedicated to working for the common good.” Isn’t it desirable and critical to fully integrate this methodology into the world of humanitarian assistance throughout engaging donors, delivering programs, reporting on successes and failures, and evaluating actions?

 I witnessed an event recently when working toward earthquake response in Nepal that simultaneously bothered and inspired me. This event gave me pause about the structure and expectations of donors, international aid, NGOs, and ourselves.

 Amid the aftermath of the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake, a young Nepalese man worked tirelessly to source, collect, and deliver food, flashlights, blankets, and shelter supplies to his own community and surrounding villages. He arranged multiple deliveries to these villages for many days starting within 48 hours post-earthquake. During one delivery, the young Nepalese man encountered an NGO Director. The NGO Director listened to the young man’s story and immediately saw an opportunity for his own organization. Unbeknownst to the Nepalese man, the NGO Director was quickly nearing the end of his time in Nepal and was feeling the pressures of not having delivered sufficient work to satisfy his donors.

 The NGO Director offered to pay for transportation of the Nepalese man’s goods on the condition that someone of his choosing would wear his NGO’s shirt and logo and would accompany the items to the delivery point, shoot video, and take photos. The Director was completely unaware that his choice was someone who did not speak Nepali or local language of the village, had never been to those villages before, had not been involved in any of the item collections or prior deliveries and was now going to be the “poster” person for this aid effort.

 Unfortunately, this type of situation is all too frequently the image of international nonprofit work. While this event has definite upsides—the goods were delivered–I could not help but reflect on the general “need” for organizations to “plant their flag” and present photographs littered with logos to represent some sort of accountability in “doing good.”

 According to the Listening Project, which involved over 6,000 conversations globally to understand the long-term effects of international aid efforts on and communities over time, quite a few respondents say, “they believe aid providers depend on the recipients’ ‘needs’ because responding to these needs justifies the providers’ existence and work.” Yet, Linda Hill writes in the Harvard Business Review: “Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute, but building communities that can innovate. “

 What if we reevaluated the characteristics of those who lead from the middle and from behind to guide principled action, team building, and innovation? In Lead from the Middle: The 9 New, New Leadership Principles, the following principles are discussed: facilitate open and honest debates, listen mindfully, set clear goals but be flexible, be measurably accountable, fail valuably, learn relentlessly, give 100% real action, lead from within—with soul. Aren’t these principles what we ultimately value the most in an NGO delivering assistance to those in need? Continued from Lead from the Middle, “[i]t is about being in the middle of it, not directing, not dictating, and not doing it all.” International NGOs cannot do it all, nor should we expect to, particularly when community partners are already doing so much and can use support that is given without the risk of being over-run.

 So, at every instant in humanitarian assistance and international development, can we fundamentally shift our expectations and perspectives to value and promote a nonprofit organization’s ability to truly support local efforts, local networks, and local organization rather than stamping a sticker and logo, taking photos, and leaving? Perhaps we would all better and more authentically serve communities by taking one, two, or even more steps back in our leadership style to lead from the middle and/or behind, and to expect nothing less from our donation dollars.

 For more information on our work in Nepal through our community partners, please click here.

 Copyright 2015, emBOLDen Alliances.

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