Is leading from the front a good thing?
Well, the short answer is yes, but it comes with one major caveat. I’ve seen many leaders doing the work of people below them and then painting this as a virtue by saying, “I’m leading from the front.”
This concept is completely flawed, and it’s a dangerous misinterpretation of the concept. In its true form, leading from the front has absolutely nothing to do with doing the same work as your people, or helping them to do their jobs.
Leading from the front is about demonstrating, modeling, and reinforcing the behaviors you expect from your team, and that you’re trying to embed in the culture.
This can only be done if you don’t show any personal dissonance or hypocrisy. For example, if you were to cite one of your values as customer focus, you need to demonstrate that clearly, but also in a way that’s appropriate for your level.
It absolutely doesn’t mean that you should personally attend every customer interaction, and you certainly shouldn’t be conducting sales calls in the bowels of your organization.
Leading from the front, in this context, means that you demonstrate the importance of the customer. This may include things like:
- Investing in market intelligence
- Giving the customer opportunities to provide feedback
- Establishing relationships with your biggest customers at an appropriately senior level.
Leading from the front is about you demonstrating your intensity and passion for the organization, and the values that it holds dear.
It’s about your willingness to take full accountability for the outcomes of your team. It’s about being a leader who sets the example of stepping up and taking on personal risk in order to benefit the organization.
None of this has anything to do with doing lower level work that’s inappropriate for your pay grade.
Leaders who don’t understand this principle can be heard saying, I wouldn’t ask my team to do anything I’m not prepared to do myself.
A former airline CEO in Australia was famous for connecting with the people on the front lines. If he flew on one of his company’s planes, he’d remain onboard after all the passengers had disembarked, and he’d help to clean the aircraft. So we’re thinking that’s pretty cool, right? There’s no better way to demonstrate that nothing is beneath you.
But I just have one problem with that. He’s not doing what he’s getting paid to do. Every minute that CEO spends picking up empty coffee cups is a minute he isn’t thinking about how to make the airline perform better:
- How to improve on time running, or
- How to increase revenue-passenger kilometers
Don’t get me wrong, there’s always value in connecting with and learning from the people throughout your organization, but there are better ways to do this.
At CS Energy when we’d celebrate milestones, we’d often have a team barbecue: and it was the leaders who’d prepare and cook the food, and if I was there, I’d pick up a pair of tongs to flip burgers, too. That demonstrated that it wasn’t beneath us to serve our people, just because we happened to be leaders.
But even though I’d happily burn the sausages, I never felt the need to pick up a welding torch. Showing your people that you are prepared to do their work sends a completely different message.
That’s not leading from the front, it’s just dipping down.