Are you Leading From the Front? - Michelle Gibbings

I recently went to see Henry V at the pop-up Globe Theatre in Melbourne. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, centring around the time before and after the famous Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The English troops were vastly out-numbered by the French soldiers, and so victory looked uncertain. The night before the battle the King wandered around the English camp at night, in disguise, to comfort the soldiers but also to understand how they are feeling. The next morning, Henry leads his troops into battle and ultimate victory. His leadership wasn’t at the back of the line, but at the front participating in the battle.

As I watched the play unfold it got me thinking about leaders today, where leading often isn’t done at the front line or down in the trenches. Instead, it’s done remotely – from a comfortable office and via emails, SMS or social media.

In the modern world, if countries go to war it’s not the ruling politician or leader who goes into battle. Likewise, many corporate leaders can remain one step removed from decisions and expect employees to do things they wouldn’t like to do.

The best leaders I’ve worked with are those who are willing to get amongst it – and by that I mean understand what it is like to be on the front line serving customers or working on the shop-floor. They are eager to experience the challenges that staff confront so they are better informed and therefore able to make wiser decisions.

Leading from the front can’t be done from the comfort of your corner office (or even your open-plan desk), it involves:

  • Being willing to roll your sleeves up and get actively engaged with staff at all levels of the organisation so you really understand the challenges and opportunities they face
  • Actively leading the changes you are seeking to make by being the first to immerse yourself in the new ways of working
  • Not expecting one rule for you and other leaders, and one rule for other employees
  • Not asking your team members to do things you wouldn’t want to do
  • Being approachable and with that, being willing to listen to ideas from people across the organisation
  • Seeking ways to better understand the environment in which your team members are working so you can find ways to best support and develop their contribution
  • Being conscious of the privileged position you are in, because with your position comes the power to make decisions that can impact people around you – for good and not so good outcomes

It takes courage to step out in front. It can feel much safer and less risky to stay cocooned away from the action. Progress, however, is much harder to make when you play it safe.

In the words of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”