Sometimes it’s hard to know if leaders should be leading from the front or back. You can read great articles about the value of leading from behind. You can also find articles that make the case for leading from the front.
Of course, if you’re a sports fan, you know that most NBA, NFL and MLB coaches lead from the sidelines (or dugout).
So how do you know which one is right?
When there’s a crisis, lead from the front
We had recommended that a client use the latest software that we’d built and designed for the very situation they were in. But they had decided to go with an earlier version of the software. And it had problems.
Two days before the Fourth of July they launched. And on the first day using the older software problems started showing up. Immediately. And it was bad.
Data was getting lost and worse – some of it was getting co-mingled and shown on the screen. This was a data issue. It was a privacy issue. It was a risk management issue.
That’s when we got the call. Right as we were getting ready to take a few days off and eat more BBQ than we should have.
It was urgent. It was stressful and it was something that had to happen right then.
So I cancelled my plans. I invited anyone on my team that could, to do the same. Three of us worked 20 hours days, three days in a row, to figure out how we could help. Sometimes I did real work. High value work. Other times I was the grunt, collecting data, doing excel work, helping any way I could.
But what the team knew was that I wasn’t going to step away for a BBQ. I wasn’t going to have a party while they worked on the issue. I was right there with them. And I managed the client communications the whole way thru.
Leading from the front when there’s a crisis isn’t about being important, popular, or in charge. It’s about being the umbrella and protecting the rest of the team from the worse parts of the crisis.
Where your training, lead from the side
I’ve been speaking in public for decades. When the companies that I work for realize it, I enjoy even more opportunities to speak to large audiences.
One year, however, one of the guys from our team decided he wanted to learn to speak better. We talked about parts of speeches, how to craft them, how to practice and deliver them. But all of that was just prep work. The real leading came when I was invited to speak several times at an upcoming conference.
Instead of taking all the spots, I took half and gave him half. He went from not giving a lot of talks to suddenly needing to give 4 in as many days.
Leading from the side, in that context, isn’t just about giving guidance and tips. It’s about creating the opportunities for people to try, for staff to learn, and for leaders to come alongside their staff and provide helpful feedback.
I sat in each of his talks and only had to help once. But he knew I was there and could help out any time he needed it.
When you’re winning, lead from the back
The hardest part of leading, I think, comes when everything is going perfectly. When you’re winning, after lots of work, it’s easy not to see the moment as another opportunity to lead. It can be enticing to enjoy the accolades that come from a job well done.
But that’s precisely the time to step back and let others work out their own leadership muscles. Let them run to the front.
My dad taught me this lesson once when I was a kid in a way I never forgot.
He was the coach of our soccer team and I was about ten. We were winning the game 6-0, which was basically the same as 100-0. And suddenly, at half time, he decided he would no longer be the coach. The players would. So sitting in mid-field at half-time, eating oranges, we debated what we’d do.
We had teammates who decided for the first time in their lives that they would be forwards. Others decided to try being in the back. It was crazy. But my dad let us do it.
It’s one of the few games I actually recall – because it was so funny, so fun, and so different.
“What if we lose?” I remember asking. My dad didn’t care. The whole point was to have fun. And there was no question we were having fun.
So there you have it. My simple and quick version for knowing when to lead from the front, middle or back.