A wise mentor recently taught me a leadership principle called “over-the-shoulder” leadership.
Imagine you’re leading by facing in the same direction and encouraging others in what they alone can do. In over-the-shoulder leadership, nobody’s facing you and looking to you for all the answers. You stand behind others and point them onward and upward toward their goals. You equip and inspire, but ultimately, you’re in the background.
You’re not front and center. You’re not the point.
This afternoon, my daughter asks for help with her math homework. I’m literally standing and gazing over her shoulder at the task she must do (it’s her task, not mine). I have no idea how to help her because I’m terrible at math. Instead, I put my hand on her shoulder and ask her what she knows and then what she needs to know. Then I don’t say anything at all for a while. Sometimes, I point out a strategy or a key piece of information, but other than that, it’s really me over her shoulder, encouraging her to do what she herself must do.
I want to be the kind of person that encourages and enables by standing behind, over the shoulder.
This is an important image to remember if you’re a leader or mentor who struggles with balance and boundaries in leadership, parenting, and friendship. Over-the-shoulder leadership empowers others and keeps you in your proper place.