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  • Writer's pictureLiz Cooper

Leading from Behind: Building Skills, Instilling Confidence, Creating Space and Purposefully 'Going with the Flow'.


I am a Girl Guide leader. I have been involved in Scouts and Guides since I was seven. One of the lifelong skills I have learned as a member of this global volunteer-driven organization is to be able to answer the questions: what does it mean to have youth-driven programming and how can people with knowledge lead from behind to ensure that people feel like they have been able to contribute in a meaningful way. This helps to ensure that people were not simply following directions but building skills.


Youth-driven approaches really complement the principles of shared decision-making that we have within health and social services spheres. The lack of leading from behind is where our healthcare and education systems often fall apart. Research and policy development too, for that matter.


People need to have a level of autonomy, no matter how old they are. This is especially key when you are trying to build capacity or form a functioning team. Autonomy must be present, and people must see the value of their contributions.

Think about the young child saying “I dood it myself”! As people, we never really move much beyond that, however hopefully we do move to a point where we understand that we cannot ‘go at things alone’, rather we need sound council from those with knowledge, wisdom and ideas. We need opportunities for growth. We need to stumble, to fall, to succeed and succeed on our own terms. We also need to have people we trust to debrief with, to unpack best practices with, and to understand how the processes work.


Sometimes this process of leading from behind looks messy. Okay- you’ve got me. This process almost always looks messy when it starts off.


Debriefing is probably the most important aspect of leading from behind. Sometimes that debriefing happens in the moment, but often it takes place after people have had a chance to reflect on decisions that have been made.


Within our society, we often are told what to do. We go to meetings with strict agendas. We are told what will be on an exam. We are given a treatment regimen. Someone else is “leading” us. Or pulling us along to where they think we should or need to go. However this leadership approach does not allow for individual growth and it does not allow for people to develop skills to be capable leaders.

I lead from behind. I lead from a shared-decision making position and a customer / consumer / community / patient driven perspective.


I have conversations and I let people try things in ways that I know are not going to result in harm.


If it was going to result in harm, I would intervene, however if there is no direct harm that I believe will result, then I am there to act as a facilitator and sounding board and to facilitate dialogue and shared decision-making.


We know with early childhood development that children need to test their boundaries. Sometimes this causes anxiety, however problem solving in a safe way is essential for development and growth. The 5 year old who thinks they are stuck on top of a play structure because they can’t remember how they got to the top will feel a lot better in the long run if they are supported to figure out their options for getting down and do it on their own and will be able to push and grown the next time they face a similar challenge. The child who uses a plastic knife to cut up a banana will grow into a person who is able to use a regular knife safely and with confidence.


The same thing holds true with youth and adults. A person may feel anxiety if they are faced with space to make decisions or groups are asked to make decisions together.

If there is no harm caused by a deadline being pushed slightly or a meal being a little late, then it is better to give people the space to try to problem solve in a safe way. This is where we have to trust that the facilitators have the skills and knowledge to know what is safe and what is not, just as we have to trust the adults with the child stuck on the top of the play structure to know when to lift the child down and when to let them climb down on their own.


As a leader, I am watching for the risks. I am coaching people through decision making and decision-making anxiety, and I am intervening, hopefully in a gentle way, when I see something dangerous and providing options to help them weigh the pros and cons.

Of course, there are times when a leader needs to give concrete direction, but often within the work I do as a coach, mentor, educator, and facilitator, there is flexibility within outcomes that will lead to growth and better long-term outcomes and outputs.


I am always looking to the long-term outcomes and outputs and what needs to happen to get us to that point of growth.


Some of the bet outcomes for me are when people look back after working their way through a challenge, that they say “I did that and I’m proud of what I did” or say “that didn’t work, so let’s try this instead” or, as with a conversation I had last spring:


“Things happened as they were meant to, and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes it was rocky at times, but ultimately the challenges were when we pulled together and I can’t wait until the next event/product we do together, because we are now a team”.

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