Why leaders should lead from the front

I spent a lot of time during the last few months reflecting on my own leadership experience. One of my conclusions is that leading from the front helped me achieve success as a leader. Interestingly, the concept of leading from the front is coming back in fashion since the start of the pandemic. Here is why I believe leading from the front works.

Everything looks different when you lead from the front

I talked in my previous article about feedback about the power of perspective. Perspective matters a lot in leadership because leading is taking a group on a journey to achieve something. The definition of the verb “lead” according to the Oxford English Dictionary is:

Show (someone or something) the way to a destination by going in front of or beside them.

Definition of to lead according to OED.

I often travel by train, and when I was younger, I was lucky to experience my daily train commute to University from a different perspective. As part of an open day, I got the opportunity to do my usual journey upfront in the driver’s cab instead. To this day, I still remember how different everything looked. This is even though by then, I had done this journey hundreds of times! All, the familiar sights were there, but they looked different and I also saw objects and signals on the tracks which I had never seen before. Yet, they had always been there, and seeing them made me understand things that had not made sense to me when I did the same journey from a passenger’s seat.

You can’t see red lights flashing ahead from a passenger’s perspective but you sure can from a driver’s perspective. Something worth considering when deciding to lead from the front or from a more supportive position instead.

Leading from the front enables leaders to see things that are there all along but can be difficult to see otherwise. I am a big believer in metrics, numbers and data to support leadership and decision making. However, even the best and most advanced dashboard or scoring system can only tell so much. In my organisation, our internal metrics and the dashboards I devised; told us a lot about how we were doing. But they were never a perfect substitute for seeing things on the ground. Experiencing what was happening in the field by attending events, visiting groups, and partaking in activities gave me the complete picture of how we were truly doing. The experience taught me that the only way to truly understand the challenges faced by the lower levels of an organisation is to experience them for oneself.

Of course, leading from the front is not always possible and can be very time-consuming. Moreover, in-depth strategic work cannot be done from the frontlines as it does require a level of detachment from reality. Nevertheless, the inputs gathered by visits on the ground and speaking with people at all levels of an organisation can feed into strategic work. Coupling in-depth analytical work with getting a feel for how things are going based on conversations etc. Can create truly transformational leadership which combines vision with realism on how strategies can be turned into reality at the lower echelons of an organisation.

Leading from the front helps cutting out noise

I talked before about how complacency can have deleterious consequences in any organisation. One of the triggers of complacency is leaders falling prey to groupthink. Groupthink can happen in any organisation and the leadership team itself is the one most at risk of falling prey to groupthink. Moreover, it is amazingly easy for it to happen in a short space of time. In my organisation, I am stunned by the number of acronyms that leaders use amongst themselves. They also sometimes fall prey to using internal jargon to discuss issues and challenges arising. The net effect of this is that leaders will lean towards thinking and communicating in similar ways. Unknowingly, this creates a perfect environment for groupthink and disconnection from the wider organisation.

Leading from the front can help remedy some of this in two main ways. Firstly, it help leaders cut through the noise by focusing on how end-users, members or lower echelons perceive things. This matters a lot because challenges that seem quite minor from the top; could be perceived very differently lower down the line. Secondly and even more importantly, leaders who lead from the front will be exposed to the reality as it is and not as they perhaps wish it to be.

Both of these things will also help internal communications. This is provided of course, that communications channels spanning the entire organisation are open. Leaders who are willing to lead from the front can use these channels to pass on messages more effectively, and in a way that will be understood by all. In my experience, cascading communications downwards one level at a time is inefficient, creates extra work and leads to key messages being deformed or even ignored altogether. All of this exacerbates the distance between leaders and the lower levels of an organisation. Leading from the front and harnessing the power of modern communications, provides a chance to cut through the noise, make an impact and be authentic.

And helps harnessing the power of social proof

I have recently started to reread Influence by Robert Cialdini. One of the psychological concepts in the book is social proof. The best way to describe this concept is that in situations of uncertainty, people are likely to wait for someone to take the lead before doing something. Additionally, individuals who are part of a group tend to emulate the actions and behaviours of others. Social proof is heavily used in marketing via product reviews and endorsements by influencers.

Social proof in action for a group of penguins where a leader emerged. The same principles or less applies to humans too. Humans are social animals after all!

Leaders who lead from the front can harness this power in many ways. If they desire to transform an organisation and bring change forward. They should be actively embracing and promoting said change. If they are looking to set new standards of behaviours, the leaders should demonstrate these behaviours whenever they can. Of course, both of these things are easier said than done. But didn’t I say before that leadership is hard?

The best illustration of the power of social proof in leadership settings. Is that members of an organisation can quickly notice if their leadership is active or not. Leaders seen to be doing something are more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt than leaders who are not seen in the same way. Additionally, respect for the wider organisation and its leaders can be lost, if leaders are perceived to be uninterested in what happens at lower levels. Respect matters a lot, as once respect is lost, it can be challenging to rebuild it.

Finally, social proof is probably one of the best tools that leaders can use to build teams and gather followers. I met many people who served with me when I was “getting a feel for things” by visiting clubs across my organisation. I’ll be the first person to recognise that leading by example from the front has its costs. It can demand a lot of time and energy. However, the benefits in clarity of vision, clarity of communication, and in building one’s tribe more than make up for it in my view.

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