Dao Du Jour II, Day 52: Leading From Behind

Chapter 51: Nature, Nurture

“To have without possessing,

do without claiming,

lead without controlling:

This is mysterious power.”

Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Obama said many things that were grossly misinterpreted: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” “You didn’t build that,” and, of course, “Leading from behind.”

Except he didn’t say that last one. But you probably thought the did. These two facts are instructive. 

If there is one thing presidents of elite universities will tell you they are trying to instill in their students, it is something called “leadership.” Contrary to the traditional ethos according to which young people should first listen and learn, defer to experts and elders, receive guidance from the discipline and wisdom of teachers, bosses, or mentors, submit to a craft, a subject, an established body of knowledge—they should lead. Prior to the full development of their neocortex, they should lead. Before they are old enough to legally drink alcohol, they should lead. All of them.

What this really means is that they should conform to the values, norms, and mores of the Professional Managerial Class in order to join, or rather remain in, what Matthew Stewart calls the “9.9%.” Crush it. Kill it. Grind. “Lunch,” as Gordon Gecko memorably put it, “is for wimps.”

To lead means to win, to dominate, to reap the rewards of a zero-sum game. Rarely is it stated that there will be many losers. Through a strange ideological alchemy, the winners-take-all mindset of neoliberalism capitalism has been fused with the “everyone gets a trophy” mindset of progressive egalitarianism; this creates the illusion that everyone can be a leader.

Ignoring for the nonce that this is a terrible way to build a healthy society and thriving economy, it’s a misguided way of understanding leadership. Obama didn’t use the phrase “leading from behind” to describe his approach to foreign policy, but it does capture the spirit of his approach. During his campaign for president in 2008, he famously said that he was not opposed to war; he was opposed to “dumb” wars. The Iraq war was dumb in that it was launched from a dumb mindset—the heady intoxication of the “unipolar moment” after the end of the Cold War and the neoconservatives’ eagerness to promote democracy abroad—and in a dumb way—lacking legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. While Obama and the foreign policy establishment over-learned the pitiless lessons of Iraq—especially when it came to Syria and Russia—the instinct was sound.

Leading from behind means sounding out your allies, partners, and stakeholders—especially those who are “less powerful” than you. It means thinking and feeling into the perspectives of your friends and enemies. It means realizing that you’re not in control. It doesn’t mean not using overwhelming force; just that you should only do so when the winds and the waves are behind you. Otherwise, you are just puffing and bluffing. Putin is leading, but not from behind.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?