on leading

During the conflict in Libya, one of the President’s advisers described his approach as “leading from behind,” a reference to the strategy of allowing others to be presented as the initiators of one’s plan. It can be a useful thing when it avoids opposition to oneself rather than to the plan itself.

The problem with the phrase is that it can sound like a way to escape responsibility. It can morph into an overly cautious approach, with a temptation to wait until an outcome is perceived as favorable and then claiming behind the scenes leadership in something where in reality there was no involvement or initiative.

Or it can wind up being used to capture the appearance of reacting to one’s opponent in desperation, as in the President’s sudden change of plans today. The perception of who is leading and who is reacting is going to be important in this election. Mitt Romney has the advantage today.

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