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Leading from Behind – A Fine Balance for Success

sheep and dog

“Leading from behind” was a term coined during the Obama administration in connection with the U.S. Libya engagement policy. We used our local allies to lead the charge, with the U.S. providing supplies, equipment, training and intelligence needed for the fight.

Nelson Mandela also described it this way:

“I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, 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.”

Leading from behind also has application in advancement strategy. Three dynamics come to mind:

1.Gift Officers with volunteers.

2. Chief Advancement Officers with senior executives

3. Consultants with clients


Gift Officers and Volunteers

For advancement shops that use and rely on volunteer assistance, I have always found it of great value to setup the volunteer, whenever possible, to lead the way. This includes: running committee meetings; participating in cultivation activities, including home and office parlor events; initiating conversation in gift discussion meetings; and, recognizing them with earnest and appropriate praise in person and at public (board) meetings and events. Those of us in the profession know that a volunteer’s success is our success, and it is our job to make them successful as well as coworkers.


Chief Advancement Officers Other Senior Executives

Everyone has a boss. And it is important to keep the boss happy, and by extension, your peer executives. Involving the CEO or other vice presidents or deans in cultivating and soliciting key donors and board members is common. As such, everything that can be done to ensure a successful experience should be done. In an ask situation, using the strength of your relationship with the donor, this could even include prepping the donor so your boss will be successful. It is often the case that when peer executives are involved in securing an important gift, they will want to do it again. To the extent you can make them feel very good about the importance of their involvement, and praise them publicly, the more likely they will become a solid ally for you in the future.


Consultants with Clients

The priority of an advancement consultant is the success of the client. Success usually includes accomplishing the objectives of the engagement and leaving the advancement program stronger and with the promise of sustainable growth. Even in a campaign situation, dual goals must be met – reaching the campaign goal and leaving a more robust advancement operation. To do this, advancement staff must be trained, coached and empowered, and above all, be the face of the consultant’s work. Staff remain and are the constant after the consultant has finished the engagement.

Leading from behind also requires performance metrics and incentive compensation for advancement staff that take into account the value of teamwork and emphasis on the greater good, and that leaders and staff are mature enough to see this value.

Your takes:

1. The importance of building a team spirit throughout the organization is central to success.

2. Coaching the team means giving credit where due and helping team members recognize their value.

3. Evaluate performance in ways that include teamwork and selflessness.









1 Comment

  1. Elena Brandt

    What a timely article for me to read today, Larry. Great relevance when I think about some current client relationships.

    Thanks so much for the time and effort it takes to write these blogs.

    With appreciation,

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