Project Practitioners > Lead From the Back

Lead From the Back

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


When envisioning a leader, the person at the front of the line carrying the big stick is what comes to mind. Pointing in different directions with confidence. Giving orders to the masses at the podium in front of a large crowd. Sitting at the front of the boardroom table answering all of the questions.

These images of a leader are not wrong. They do not tell the entire truth. Leaders can also lead from the back. Some people lead by telling. Others lead by doing. The ‘doer’ type leaders are considered in the trenches with the crews and teams getting their hands dirty leading by example.

Stories and quotes are great tools to motivate. Another fantastic tool to show your team you mean what you say is to perform work alongside them, even behind them.

Think of the drummer boy leading an army from behind. That drum is keeping their legs moving even when it is the last thing anyone wants to do. All these people want to rest and take a break for a few minutes. Yet, that drummer boy in the back continues to create energy.

The term ‘leader’ is inherently a front-of-the-line term. If someone is leading a race, they are not last in line. However, flip the ‘leader’ term on its head to understand a different perspective.

Here are a few ways to lead from the back:


Be Willing to Perform All Tasks

Do not ask someone to do something you would never do. My background in the field has helped me tremendously in my transition to the office. I understand how a laborer’s mind works on a Friday afternoon. Pushing the pace at that time is a great way to lose their belief in you.

Asking a foreman to fill out pages of paperwork at the end of each day to document the progress sounds like a great idea. You get the information to help with invoicing, production, and progress. Now, reality sets in and the foreman just worked 12 hours in the blistering heat, and he gets a phone call from you asking why is there no information in the system yet?

He knows you spent all day in the air-conditioned office monitoring progress from afar. Then, at the end of the day, you have the gall to ask why aren’t those numbers entered? Do you think that response will be ‘sure thing boss, anything for you’ or will it be ‘you can stick this paperwork where the sun does not shine?’

Also, just because you did it in the past, does not make it a currently feasible activity. You performed work without the proper equipment in the past to save on time and cost. Nowadays, that is not a reason someone else should be doing that same activity.


Bout That Action Boss

Marshawn Lynch, a retired National Football League (NFL) running back, once famously stated, “I’m just ‘bout that action boss.” All of the talk and rumors did not mean anything to him. He wanted to play football and prove his skills on the field. The contract talks meant nothing to him once he put the pads on.

The same for project managers. You can talk a big game, but when push comes to shove, you better be able to back it up. No one cares about your career as a laborer two decades ago. They are about that action now. If you say Friday’s will be an easier schedule and maybe some of the team can leave early, but then start to work them later on Friday’s to get the road ready for the weekends, you lose all credibility.

Your words and actions are contradictory. And actions speak louder than words.

No one wants to be promised raises or a newer truck only to be dragged along the saga you have created. Either give the team member a raise or do not bring it up in the first place.


Pick Your Spots

You do not always have to push the limits of your crew/team. Pick your spots. Sometimes the superstar gets called out, and other times you take the brunt. If you continue to whip a horse, eventually, the horse quits. You have to time it correctly to get maximum performance out of your team.

Continuing the same schtick with the same people gets tiring. It cannot always be one person’s fault. And if that is the case, you should probably get rid of that individual. Otherwise, spread the blame around and include yourself. Not only should you include yourself, but you should also start with yourself. What can you do better before you start telling others what they can do better? Again, be about that action.

You can lose a room quickly by not picking out your spots correctly. Never calling out the superstar sends a message to the team that he or she can get away with it because talent supersedes rules. Nitpicking the superstar for every little mistake makes the person want to quit and find a better situation.

Find that balance between highlighting issues and letting certain things slide. Not everyone is perfect, including yourself. Sometimes, take a mirror out and see what you need to change. Admitting fault to a team can be the best solution.



A leader is a necessarily a ‘rah-rah’ type at the front of the line shouting everyone’s praise. Sometimes, it takes getting your hands dirty to display leadership. It is easy to shout orders from your air-conditioned office on the top floor when you are reading results in an email. Once you experience the production, then it becomes obvious.

Provide an environment where your team can lead a meeting and spill their guts about the hardships they face and what can be improved. These meetings can provide many glaring issues and offer solutions you can act on. Be about that action. Do not continue this cycle of tabling issues, do nothing, table issues, do nothing, and so on.

When you take action, pick your spots. Your routine leadership style may be getting mundane for your team and not working anymore. Look inward, then express outwardly. Showing your team you can change and lead by example creates a positive, progressive environment for them to do the same.

Take the lead…from the back.

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