Almost everyone has heard that you’re supposed to lead from the front or by example. Recently we’ve heard the term leading from behind. What do these concepts actually mean and how do they relate to leadership? As an observer of leadership tendencies you see all kinds of methods or styles being embraced. I believe that this is not an either or decision but rather a transitional act from one form to the next as followers become ready.
Leading from the Front
Leading from the front or by example simply means we are demonstrating our leadership by going first. In many cases this is accomplished by the leader doing the tough things first to show that they can be done. Its one thing to tell people what to do. It is entirely different when the leader actually shows or demonstrates what needs to be accomplished. How often do we see leaders, not real leaders, tell followers to do things they themselves would not do?
Many real leaders do not believe in asking their team to do anything they themselves would not do. An attitude such as this can often mean a great deal to team members. However, it can also at times be unrealistic. A serious failing that happens to some managers is the inability to delegate. I have heard this before, “It’s easier for me to just go ahead and do it myself than show them how to do it.” This begs the question, every time something new or unusual needs to be done, is the leader expected to do it first? This is very unrealistic for larger organizations and can cause a bottleneck on productivity.
There needs to be a transitional phase where leaders move out of the way let others move forward. This of course can be scary since rise or fall the leader sits on the side. As my youngest daughter is fond of telling me, “Dad I need the freedom to make some mistakes too you know.” It does not mean the leader isn’t there for support. Many leaders need to learn how to lead from behind as well as leading from the front.
Leading from Behind
Leading from behind sounds a bit confusing and seems a little nebulous. If you ask any number of individuals what leading from behind means, you will likely get a number of different answers. It can mean, “I’m not going to do it, you do it.” That probably would end up being a little counterproductive or at the very least create attitude issues with the team members. Leading from behind can have real important meaning if utilized properly.
When leaders move out of the way and let their team take over real growth can take place. Great leaders build teams of individuals that can operate on their own in almost any environment. It is often hard to let go for leaders and let someone else sink or swim based upon their actions alone or lack thereof. If the goal is to build a team of individuals that can be autonomous solving problems or adapting as necessary to fluid situations on their own, then the eagles must be made to leave the nest.
There is a story that when parent eagles feel it’s time for the young to leave the nest the parents will begin removing all of the soft feathers and other soft materials they have built their nest with. As the baby eagles get bigger and bigger the comfortable part of the nest becomes smaller and smaller until it is far too small for the young eagles to sit in comfort. Eventually they leave and start their own lives. As leaders we may have to make our people uncomfortable in order for them to begin to fly on their own and realize that they too can soar like eagles.
This is leading from behind. It is the ability to stand back and let others take the lead. By letting others move to the forefront and experience leadership on their own they begin to become far more creative and productive. Things can and do go wrong. However, the end result for these trusted individuals is the ability start leading the way and is also how leaders multiply themselves.
Charismatic & Entrepreneurial Leadership
Here is another great leadership mantra, get a charismatic entrepreneurial leader to get things going and keep them running smooth. The first danger here to me is that such attempts more often than not fail in real-life business. Just because someone is a charismatic entrepreneurial type of leader, or even that they had success elsewhere, does not guaranty success in the here and now. How often at the medium to large cap level do we see such leaders take on new challenges with new organizations only to make things worse than previously.
The other side of the coin is where the leader is irreplaceable. Look at Apple. When Steve Jobs left earlier in the life cycle of Apple the company stumbled seriously. When he came back they rose again. However, now that he has passed away what will happen? Personally I believe without his visionary leadership, or someone else’s, Apple will eventually slip somewhat into obscurity over time unless the company seriously diversifies. What Apple failed to do before Jobs left the first time was to build a stable platform of individuals who were experienced in leadership roles who could keep things running well without Jobs. Does Apple have that now, I do not know only time will tell.
This is the answer whether you lead from the front or lead from behind you need to be a fearless leader. In the beginning you will most likely have to lead from the front demonstrating commitment and a willingness to do what it takes to successfully accomplish the tasks at hand. At some point you will need to begin to shift to leading from behind for some individuals. There must come a time when a leader can and should step out of the way and let the followers take over. Leaders cannot have such a large ego that they never relinquish control. Very few organizations can grow substantially with such strangled and centralized control. The more de-centralized creativity is the more likely productivity is to increase.
Leadership is more closely identified by both methods over a transitory period of time. You may begin with leading from the front and then over time transition to leading from behind. This is how a healthy leadership system should work. It may be further subdivided into stages that teams, groups, or individuals move through in order to grow to become more creative and productive. As a leader one could find themselves in one stage with one group or individual while simultaneously in another different stage with another group or individual. While one may define leadership accurately on paper, in the real world it needs to be much more fluid and adapted to the particular environment.
How does the fast pace of change impact these concepts?
Management vs Leadership
Management is about achieving organizational goals. It’s about accomplishing this efficiently and productively utilizing control mechanism such as planning, staffing, staffing, and directing resources. You can look throughout any organization and see management and managers at every level. While organizations need management, it cannot replace leadership. Management is about focusing on detailed plans, schedules, and use of resources. Management is focused on what is happening right now, tomorrow, and the next day. Management is always concerned with the bottom-line. Management is looking on how to stay on track.
While management tends to surround themselves with like-minded individuals, leaders tend to surround themselves with a diversity of thinking. You can often envision as the 50ft look at what the organization should accomplish. Although both management and leadership both focus on providing direction, Leadership also provides a creative vision for the organization to frame their activities in. Leadership inspires individuals to see beyond their current work-at-hand. Leadership is looking at the horizon and where they want the organization to go, the destination.
Leadership versus being a boss and Best-In-Class
When one considers leadership, the mistake most often made is to think of leadership as the individual or individuals actually leading a company at the top. While this level of leadership is extremely important to a successful company, it is not enough to become Best-In-Class. Leadership is needed at all levels of a company if the company desires to be Best-In-Class. The difficulty here is that for most companies, individuals are not promoted because of good leadership skills but rather some other skill more closely associated with job performance or personal familiarity with upper managers. What is the norm than is that a company has bosses at low, middle, and often upper management levels rather than leaders?
What is a boss, and how does it differ from a leader? A boss is usually someone who knows a given task or tasks well enough to pass that knowledge on to an individual or group of individuals. A boss is usually also someone who can accomplish the logistics of the position in an efficient and successful manner. These individuals are often promoted not so much because of what they can do but rather based upon who they know. This type of promotion can be considered a consequence of Leader-Member Exchange theory.
Within Leader-Member Exchange Theory the leader, in this case upper managers, creates an in-group and by default, an out-group. Most likely the in-group is the ones often being promoted because of familiarity and not necessarily because of leadership potential. This often provides adequate performance within a position, enough to keep a system like this propagating within a company or industry. But to achieve Best-In-Class more is needed.
With the advent and popularity of teams within companies as a form of improving productivity, many companies are now seeing the need for team leaders. Participative management such as utilizing teams is in most cases a method of moving low or non-productive employees into a much more motivated attitude which in turn increases overall productivity. Giving employees more authority and autonomy can increase job ownership. Increased job ownership will increase a desire for better personal and team productivity and improved quality.
Even teams need leadership. Whether leadership is at the local level, within the team, or from someone above the team providing support for the team, leadership is mandatory for team success. You might say, “Wait we only have a facilitator in our team and we’re successful.” Leadership can take on many different looks and facilitator is one of them. Leadership can be both innate in individuals and it can also be taught. One only has to look at the proliferation of leadership schools available to business to see that many companies see leadership training as one of the most important needs for the successful future of their companies.
How important is true leadership? Once again, without being political you only have to look as far as governments around the world to see firsthand what a leadership vacuum can do on a global economic front. Here in the U.S. are political processes are mired in red tape and inactivity primarily in my opinion as I stated in the beginning of this book, because there is no real leadership anywhere within the U.S. government right now.
If any business desires to be Best-In-Class, then acquiring, building, or promoting real leaders is paramount. Leaders are individuals that people will want to follow. Leaders will inspire or create a motivational environment that generates highly successful subordinates as a natural outgrowth. Motivation is often confused with hype. Bosses can create hype. Leaders generate motivation through inspiration. If you desire to be the best, then find, build, or create leaders. Look for individuals that are already highly self-motivated. These may be individuals who are leaders in the making. Companies must start promoting individuals because of their potential for leadership as one of the primary attributes necessary to move up in a company.
Almost anyone can be administratively and logistically successful. These types of individuals will only create a mundane working environment that breads mediocrity. Only leaders have the ability to garner subordinate behavior and citizenship above and beyond mediocrity and into Best-In-Class.