In a blog post over at the New Yorker site, Ryan Lizza follows up on a point he made in a longer article: the idea of "leading from behind" that has recently arisen in connection with Obama's foreign policy. He summarizes the idea:
So despite the funny phrasing, at the heart of the idea of leading from behind is the empowerment of other actors to do your bidding or, as in the case of Libya, to be used as cover for a policy that would be suspect in the eyes of other nations if it’s branded as a purely American operation.
I did not find the phrasing funny at all, but recognized it as a notion right out of passage 66 of the Daodejing:
Oceans and rivers become emperors of the hundred valleys because they stay so perfectly below them. This alone makes them emperors of the hundred valleys.
So, wanting to rule over the people a sage speaks from below them, and wanting to lead the people he follows along behind them,
then he can reign above without weighing the people down and stay ahead without leading the people to ruin.
All beneath heaven rejoices in its tireless praise of such a sage. And because he's given up contention, nothing in all beneath heaven contends with him.
I have always thought, consistent with the wu-wei (do nothing) sensibility of the text, that this passage is telling us that "leading from behind" means not trying to impose a pre-conceived plan of action on any given social or political moment. Let people, and things, act as they will and take that as a cue for how Way is unfolding. Follow that lead and better outcomes will be gained ("better," at least in terms of being more consistent with extant circumstances and possibilities). In foreign policy this might suggest not taking rash actions, as in Iraq, but allowing conditions to evolve and follow the course of events, such as in the differing approach to Lybia and Syria.
Americans, however, are uncomfortable with the idea of "leading from behind." Many want their leaders out front: a man with a plan. Politically, therefore, Obama cannot publicly embrace the "leading from behind" meme. But it might just yield a more prudent and balanced and stable foreign policy....