Frequently, we visualize an influential leader as a speaker on stage standing in the spotlight issuing a rallying cry to their audience below, a ship captain positioned at the helm of their titanic vessel charting the course ahead, or a conductor poised before an orchestra of watchful musicians. All these images of commanding leaders beg the question, aren’t leaders always supposed to lead from out in front? The answer is – not necessarily. There are other positions of leadership that can be equally effective and even necessary at times.
Take a moment to reflect on the past week and the different activities that were required of you to lead your team. Now consider your team’s engagement level, the momentum at which they were progressing toward their goals, and the degree to which they were in sync with each other.
Now consider your orientation to your team as their leader over the past week. For example, you may have been leading from in front – setting the direction for the team and showing them the way forward. Or, you might have been leading from beside – coming alongside your team to collaborate and coach. Or, you could have been leading from behind – fading into the background while monitoring and guiding as necessary. What was your orientation to your team, and what was their response? Did you get the results you wanted?
Each of the three orientations – in front, beside and behind – are equally valuable and useful depending on the state of your team and what needs to be accomplished. Determining which orientation to choose at which time can be problematic for leaders, particularly if you’re not attuned to the needs of your team. Equally problematic, your natural leadership style may create a tendency to overutilize an approach that keeps you and your team stuck – stalling progress toward goals.
Like the leaders initially envisioned, if you’re sharing new possibilities for the future or initiating significant change, leading from the front enables you to show your team the way forward. A first-time executive I’m coaching has been doing lots of leading from in front as he sets a new direction and expectations for the team he once was part of and now leads. They are getting behind his vision, gaining an understanding of how to best function together while collaborating with other departments, and seeing the possibility of innovative outcomes.
Once progress toward this new vision for the future is underway, you will likely need to shift to leading from alongside for a while to ensure your team gets the support, development, and coaching needed to succeed. Leading from alongside also gives you a first-hand perspective on the capacity of your team, additional resources required, and the team’s understanding and commitment to the vision. All of which are critical to getting desired outcomes.
After leading from beside, you may need to shift back out in front to remind the team of the destination they’re pursuing, or it might be time to fade behind to monitor, guide and course-correct as needed. When a team demonstrates that it’s able to operate cohesively, productively problem solve, and is showing progress toward goals, this indicates that it’s a good time for a leader to revisit expectations and take a step back from day-to-day management.
Knowing when to shift to a different orientation is key. Here are three signs:
- Once your team is clear about future goals and committed to the vision, shift from in front to beside – but not all the way to behind just yet.
- When you see that your team is functioning well and progressing toward its goals, shift from beside to behind.
- As you observe or sense that progress is stalled, there’s confusion, unproductive conflict is emerging, or there is significant change, it’s time to shift back to leading alongside.
Increasing your capacity to identify which leadership orientation your team needs and improving your ability to deftly step out front, come alongside or fade into the background will give you more options to effectively lead while skillfully engaging your team, and creating the conditions for them – and you – to succeed.
Emily Rogers, Founder & CEO of Emily Rogers Consulting + Coaching, is an executive coach, team coach, and keynote speaker. She strategically advises and supports individuals and organizations in growing and realizing their full potential in purposeful and balanced ways. You can connect with her at emilyrogers.com. Want to strengthen your capacity to lead with excellence and grow with purpose? Consider enrolling in Emily’s Leadership Development Programs.