Friday, March 12, 2010

You Cannot Lead From Behind

My wife likes me to go grocery shopping with her. Since I travel so much as a consultant any time we can spend together is quality time.

I really enjoy going to the store with my wife. She lets me push the cart. It gives me that false sense that I’m in charge. But I know who the real boss is. She’s the one who has the list. She knows what we need to buy. She knows where we are going in the store.

For some reason, however, my wife insists on following me behind the cart. I keep telling her she cannot lead from behind. I cannot follow her if she is not out in front. Every time she tries to lead from behind I have to stop, turn around, and ask her where to go next. This stop and go shopping is very inefficient. And that can really irritate someone like me who is an efficiency expert.

Just as my wife cannot lead from behind at the grocery store, so too managers cannot lead from behind their desk. It is impossible to lead from the back office or behind the wizard’s curtain. Leaders cannot lead from behind. Leaders must be out in front of their people. Leaders must be ahead of those they intend to lead. Leaders must show their followers the way by stepping out in front and leading by example.

True leaders know where they are going. They can see the path ahead because they are out front on point. They know the hurdles and barriers that must be surmounted. They also know where others must go to achieve the desired objective.

Leading is not the same as managing. Much has been written about the differences between managing and leading. There are different competencies for a leader than for a manager. But one major difference that separates leaders from managers is where their activities take place.

Managers can manage from their office. They can plan, organize, direct, delegate, control, communicate, and make decisions from behind a desk. Managers can do administrative tasks and even manage the performance of their employees from behind a closed door. It’s entirely possible to manage a business without ever leaving the office. But it’s not possible to lead people, or a business, from behind a desk.

Leadership requires being on the front-line. True leaders want to be out on the shop floor among the workers. They want to talk to customers and employees. Real leaders place high value on face-to-face, personal contact with the people that matter most -- customers and employees.

Leaders don’t rely on reports or formal communication channels alone to get information. They leave their office as often as possible so they can see and hear things for themselves. They learn a lot by mingling with the “troops.” They position themselves out in the trenches where they can better sense how the battle is progressing.

Real leaders understand the motivational value of visible management. They pitch in, help out, and carry their own load when needed. They know employees respect leaders who work on the front-line rather than work in an ivory tower. That's how you can tell who the real leaders are in an organization. They are the ones who are out front leading the way.

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