Leading from the Front

Business leaders have often drawn wisdom from military leaders when it comes to managing their teams. One concept that stands out from military culture is leading from the front. However, this concept can be misunderstood if leaders try to apply it to business environments without fully understanding what it means.

Leading from the front is not about always being in people’s faces, shouting and screaming commands. It’s about setting the pace with a team, earning team members’ respect, and leading by example. The leader makes quick, decisive moves, knowing that the risk of not making decisions is greater than the risk of making them.

Military leaders who lead their troops to victory are on the front lines of battle. They are in the trenches with their troops, and they lead bravely and fearlessly. Similarly, in the business world, good leaders are in front of customers, addressing their challenges; walking the factory floor to gain an understanding of employees’ needs; and rolling up their sleeves to solve real-life business issues with their teams.

When things go wrong as a result of decisions, leaders take full responsibility, but when they win the war, they give full credit to their troops.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership. —Nelson Mandela

As much as we try to make a hero of one person in the business world, typically a team of people slogs day and night to make things happen.

A famous quote from General George S. Patton comes to mind: “An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individual hero stuff is a bunch of bullshit.”     

Leaders leading from the front have earned the admiration and loyalty of their troops. Leading from the front means setting the example and, instead of telling the team to do things, doing things with them.

What you do has far greater impact than what you say. —Stephen Covey

To lead from the front, you have to be a follower first. Wisdom, knowledge, and the right to lead do not come because one attended a top-rated school. Great leaders have been in the trenches before, slogged through life’s challenges, failed many times, and followed other great leaders. Only then do they earn the stripes to lead.

Before you start to lead from the front, you have to lead from the side or from behind. You must have the humility to learn, contribute, and then earn the respect of your team.

Leaders who lead from the front are visionaries. They have an uncanny ability to think broadly and deeply about topics ranging from business to the potential effect of their actions on their team, community, and customers.

These leaders have mental maps to project how things may unfold based on the team’s actions. Further, they can communicate with simple bite-size messages to inspire, engage, and energize their teams.

Vision is the main tool leaders use to lead from the front. Effective leaders don’t push or pressure their followers. They don’t boss them around or manipulate them. They are out front showing the way. The vision allows leaders to inspire, attract, align, and energize their followers—to empower them by encouraging them to become part of a common enterprise dedicated to achieving the vision.  

—Burt Nanus

In addition to being visionary, leading from the front requires leaders to be approachable, nonjudgmental, and humble. By nature, leaders are ambitious, assertive, adamant, and sometimes aggressive. These traits, although helpful at different stages of leadership, need to be moderated to connect with the team. As the leader, you need to feel the pulse of the organization, but you can do that only if you are in the trenches with your team members.

A word of caution: Leading from the front requires the traits listed above, but you run the risk of getting too far ahead of your team if you don’t keep it close to its mission. Communication is important, and communicating simple, consistent messages helps keep the troops together.

I am fortunate to have reported to good leaders and some not-so-good leaders, all of whom helped me sharpen my leadership skills. Frankly, I have learned more from the not-so-good leaders, because those lessons get imprinted much more deeply on your brain.

One has to be lucky in life to find good leaders and mentors to follow, because they not only inspire you to achieve your full potential but make a big difference in your personal and professional life.

The Bottom Line

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. — General Douglas MacArthur