As disruptive new players powered by unconventional business models challenge incumbents in every sector, agile decision-making is crucial for established firms working to take strategic next steps – quickly, accurately and iteratively! Not surprisingly, it’s often the leadership style of organizational executives that sets the directional course.
Typically, we believe those who take personal responsibility and stand out in the crowd are trail-blazers who can lead against all odds. While this sounds inspirational, is it true? Is that what a leader does?
In this next blog of my leadership Yin-Yang series, I will discuss two contrasting approaches: the more traditional leading from the front style versus the increasingly-popular leading-by-design approach.
Leading from the front line
Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Verghese Kurien, and Muhammad Yunus are examples of ground-breaking leaders who accomplished their missions and earned admiration and loyalty from staff and countless followers. They set an example and led through direct participation in their organizations’ milestones.
Leading from the front or by example means going first – doing tough things right away to demonstrate what the team can accomplish. It’s one thing to tell people what to do, but it becomes emotionally compelling when a leader personally acts to validate potential accomplishments.
How often do we see executives direct their staff to do things they won’t do? A true leader won’t ask a team to do something they would not do personally. A can-do style means a lot to team members, even though it may be unrealistic at times.
In today’s dynamic business world, leading from the front is a useful executive approach within a variety of scenarios. And, because employees take cues from what you do, walk-the-talk behavior is critical. Great military commanders understand the weighty responsibility of leadership because they put their lives and the lives of others on the line.
Leading from the front involves jumping into the trenches because no matter how dedicated employees may be, they want their leaders to know – first hand – about the contributions and sacrifices they make. Moreover, while working shoulder to shoulder with your team members, you must consistently set an example through your character, optimism, energy, and discipline. You show your team that you can ‘walk the talk’!
A strong, easily-identifiable front-line leader will bolster the team against individual weaknesses. He or she will drive synergies across the strengths of team members to free the organization from potentially stultifying internal dynamics.
Soccer legend Diego Maradona was a front-line leader. The tenacious, 5-foot-5-inch Argentine mid-fielder through steely determination, became an exceptional captain and motivational leader of Argentina and single-handedly led an average and disorganized team to glory in the 1986 World Cup.
A persuasive front-line leader can empower a large group of followers at speeds they are prepared to set, with efficiency they are driven to achieve, and within a results-oriented culture, they naturally support. These traits are particularly significant when it comes to ensuring consistent performance and standards of excellence across a large multinational organization.
Leading by design
Let us now look at the other approach to leadership through a hypothetical situation. Imagine an entrepreneur with excellent technical and soft skills starts a services firm and soon attracts loyal clients with whom he shares trusted relationships. He is the ringmaster of his young firm – from running meetings to hiring to calling all the strategic shots. The company is growing fast and taking on marquee clients. Does the future look bright?
Maybe yes, but probably no.
The business owner isn’t building his employees’ confidence and skills; and because they are not growing professionally and becoming self-assured, they turn to him to make even minor decisions. A culture of followers in which no one is accountable is beginning to take hold. Innovation and innovators are not being encouraged.
Alternatively, if the business owner had involved staff with clients, given them ownership of projects, and allowed them to reach goals via their own methods, he may have nurtured a team of confident professionals ready to take the firm to the next level.
Leading by design or from behind was popularized by South African Noble Prize winner Nelson Mandela who in his 1994 biography said, “I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the nimblest go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
More and more, leading by design is gaining popularity. Why? Today’s leaders are increasingly interdependent – within organizations, between collaborators, and among competitors. As digitalization flattens corporate silos and staff and managers become more connected, effective leaders can no longer act unilaterally.
As great corporate chiefs step down, the torch must be seamlessly transferred to a strong bench of skilled, tested and next-generation trail-blazers – such as what happened at Walt Disney Studios after the passing of its founder.
An unpredictable future demands fresh ideas
In a world of fast-paced innovation and unpredictability, organizations realize that the next big ideas may come from unlikely sources. Principals can encourage breakthrough thinking and ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute, but by building diverse teams that can innovate.
An enabling leader creates an empowering environment. Those who adopt a leadership-by-design approach will:
- Create an atmosphere of collaboration where intellectual discourse is appreciated
- Work as a team and offer members the opportunity to initiate and lead processes and projects
- Give decision-making responsibility to the team; step up in challenging times and step down in times of achievement
- Create leaders, encourage bench strength
- Set innovation at the heart of the team to drive an entrepreneurial culture
Tomorrow’s leaders must be agile enough to incorporate leadership-by-design into their management approach while also being prepared to lead from the frontline in situations that require quick, experienced decision making.
To have a discussion on the topic, feel free to get in touch with me on social media.
The author would like to thank Devika Mathur, Khushpreet Saluja, and Tamara Berry for their contributions to this article.
 The New Yorker, “Leading From Behind,” Ryan Lizza, April 26, 2011, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/leading-from-behind
 Harvard Business Review, “Leading from Behind,” Linda A. Hill, May 05, 2010, https://hbr.org/2010/05/leading-from-behind