Leading From The Front Or Behind Which Should You Choose?

Throughout my career there is one law of success that I believe which is: Failing teams, departments and organisations rediscover success as a result of leadership and not management.

So often I hear the phrase, and I am sure you do too, “It’s important to lead from the front”.  

It’s almost become a mantra that is recited without thinking about: what this means, is this the only way to lead? Should I be aware of other strategies and if so, what are they?

Today I want to talk about the philosophy of leading from the front versus leading from behind and yes you did read that correctly…leading from behind, keep reading and let me explain.


Leading From The Front



Leading from the front or by example simply means we are demonstrating our leadership by taking an active role in what we are asking and directing others to do.  

Often this means a leader will go first and demonstrates what needs to be accomplished and how to do it. It is a sad reality that we still see leaders, not real ones by the way, telling employees to do things they would not do.  

I have come across many leaders who believe they can’t ask their team to do something if they are not prepared to do it themselves.  As admirable as this may seem, at times it can also be unrealistic.  

More on this later. 


Leading From Behind

Leading from behind, sounds a strange idea doesn’t it? Let me ask you a question, what does it mean to you? For some people it can mean, “I’m not going to do it, you do it”, which isn’t exactly what we are aiming for.  

When Linda Hill of Harvard Business School talks about leading from behind she refers to Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, where he compared a great leader with a shepherd: “He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.” 

Leading from behind is when a leader deliberately steps back having set the direction and expectations. It’s about trusting and empowering the team to find their way to achieving their goals
without micro-management stifling them.

George G Flynn, Lieutenant General, US Marine Corps (Ret.) describes in his forward to the book Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek how when marines gather to eat, the junior members of the team eat first and the most senior last.  

No order is given, it just happens. Why? Well the premise of leadership in the Marine Corp is that “the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own.”


Employee Expectations Are Changing



We have talked before about the changing generations in the workplace and how Millennials are the largest group of employees in todays organisations. Millennials or Gen Y as there are often referred to and Gen Z have different expectations of their employers and companies as this quote from the Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report 2018 indicates.

“Organisations are no longer assessed based only on traditional metrics such as financial performance, or even the quality of their products or services. Rather, organisations today are increasingly judged by their relationships with their workers, their customers, and their communities, as well as their impact on society at large—transforming them from business enterprises into social enterprises.”  

If you are wondering what this has to do with whether you lead from the front or behind, let me explain.


The Risk Of Only Leading From The Front

I mentioned earlier that always leading from the front can be unrealistic. If a leader believes they always have to go first, always take the first step and be the one that makes the first mistake the risk is the leader never let’s go. The worst-case scenario is the environment that this kind of leader creates is one of dependency rather then empowerment where team members are encouraged to step up and out, and importantly make their own mistakes.  

It is only when leaders create an environment where they move out of the way and let their team take over that real growth can take place. 


Innovation and Creativity: The Key To Growth and Success



For any company to thrive and grow, it must innovate and tap into the creativity of its employees.

To do this, it’s crucial that leaders set the vision and direction of the business and that this is cascaded down to teams in meaningful ways.

What happens next is the difference between sustained success or mediocrity. The reality is a leader needs to be able to be flexible and be able to lead both from the front and behind. Having the ability to chose when to switch from one to the other will determine a leaders level of success.

In times of crisis, a business needs a leader to navigate the stormy waters. However, once the ship has been stabilised and a new course is set it’s time to step back and allow teams and individuals to flourish.

Leading from behind can have a lasting impact when used properly in conjunction with leading from the front.

Which style are you using?


Can We Help?

Zestfor specialises in developing Training programmes and resources scientifically tailored for technical markets – including Pharmaceutical, IT, and Life Sciences.    

Our blend of in-classroom, online, and virtual live-stream delivery methods will engage and assure even the most introverted team members from the first meeting – whether face-to-face or virtually. To have a brief chat call us on 0845 548 0833. Alternatively, email our team here.   


Until next time,