Posted On 15th December 2013

Thoughtless clichés have a habit of becoming management practice. They then go on to ruin careers. “Leading from the front” is one of them. Please don’t do this. This is why.

Think about it for a moment. “I won’t ask others to do what I won’t do myself” is a statement I hear in, say, 75% of the interview coaching sessions I conduct. It’s expected.

It’s a bit like the answer to the question “What are your weaknesses?” Everyone works too hard and is a perfectionist. I know I’m being lied to but equally I know the question’s futile. Does this person even know what their weaknesses are?

Leading from the front suggests you have two qualities. The first is courage, which in measured doses is admirable. In excess it’s the same as stupidity.

The other is that you know everything and are better at everything than all those you lead. This is unlikely to be true. If it is true you just might be a seriously rotten manager.

We are, after all, all different. Any team of any size needs its “completer finishers” and “resource investigators” as much as its “shapers”. Put five people in a room and one is going to be a heck of a lot better at data entry than any of the others. You don’t really want your leader being a details person, do you? The old Belbin team types still have some worth.

Leading from the front also suggests you have no idea how to train and spread knowledge.

“Follow me” works best in small unit confrontations on a battlefield somewhere and is best left to junior officers, people in a job with a sadly high turnover rate.

No, something much more sophisticated is the mark of a real leader.

I hate business books because they are almost always terribly badly written. Read military history instead. Twenty years ago I read a great book called: “Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War”. You can find it on Amazon second hand. Buy it for Christmas.

The message is in the title. Roosevelt picked his men and let them at it. There was no way he was storming Omaha Beach on D-Day, he was in a bloody wheel chair. (Churchill wanted to be there but that’s another story entirely).

He struck the right balance between nomination, delegation and intervention. He wasn’t scared to remove one of his staff if they failed. He wasn’t overly influenced by other people’s advice when it came to picking them either.

He chose Eisenhower for a senior role when he was an obscure Colonel. Eisenhower ended up winning the war. Roosevelt barely saw him for years, let alone the Germans.

So, choose and train, delegate and intervene, hire and fire, but for the most part lead from the back. Put the right people in the right places and largely keep out of the way. Glory in the fact others around you have talents you don’t have and use them for all their worth.

Being all things to all men simply doesn’t work.

David Welsh

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