This is a quote taken from Lao Zi, and he is of course the founder of the Taoist persuasion. There are a great many other quotes attributed to him, of course, and he is also known as the author, by and large, of the “Tao Te Ching”, which is the basic text of Taoism.
Well, how do you lead from the rear? Do you drive your people before you? Current wisdom asserts that all true leadership is from the front, and “Rear Admirals” are the lowest in the hierarchy of naval flag ranks. But Rear Admirals used to have, and might still have, a leading role, and that is to lead the squadron assigned to the rear. Presumably this was because it was deemed the “safest squadron” in the Fleet or whatever Task Force in being at the time. My thought is that the Rear Admiral was put in the place where he could do the least harm to his own ships and men while he got himself familiar with the job of being of Flag Rank. At this writing, we have moved away from massed ship-to-ship battles, with physical dispersion and concentration of force and firepower at will via remote control and polished conduct being the current order. So what does leading from the rear or front actually mean?
I think that true leadership is Presence that is not necessarily Present. I’m talking about a lower form of Omnipresence, in a manner of speaking. It’s like how Robert Heinlein describes the lingering influence of a departed Lieutenant on his Platoon:
“I haven’t mentioned the names of the private and of the assistant section leader on purpose. The Lieutenant was making pickup on all of us, with his last breath. Maybe I was the private. It doesn’t matter who he was. What did matter was that our family had had its head chopped off. The head of the family from which we took our name, the father who made us what we were.
After the Lieutenant had to leave us Captain Deladrier invited Sergeant Jelal to eat forward, with the other heads of departments. But he begged to be excused. Have you ever seen a widow with stern character keep her family together by behaving as if the head of the family had simply stepped out and would return at any moment? That’s what Jelly did. He was just a touch more strict with us than ever and if he ever had to say: “The Lieutenant wouldn’t like that,” it was almost more than a man could take. Jelly didn’t say it very often.
He left our combat team organization almost unchanged; instead of shifting everybody around, he moved the assistant section leader of the second section over into the (nominal) platoon sergeant spot, leaving his section leaders where they were needed — with their sections — and he moved me from lance and assistant squad leader into acting corporal as a largely ornamental assistant section leader.
Then he himself behaved as if the Lieutenant were merely out of sight and that he was just passing on the Lieutenant’s orders, as usual.
It saved us.”
That’s as good an illustration of Presence as any other, I suppose. I have a great many other stories, but I can’t recount them here. Perhaps you can hear them in person when we get to talk.
So, don’t worry about leading the people from the rear, the front, or from amongst them. Just lead. With your Presence.