Leading a Business or Organization Effectively: From the Front? The Back? Or from Alongside?

Entrepreneurs and business owners often hear a lot about leadership, a lot of the time. Unfortunately, sometimes that information can be confusing or various sources can even contradict each other.

Among the many reasons leadership concepts, ideas, and teachings can be so perplexing is that there are not just many different theories about what constitutes leadership in general, but also regarding what type of leadership generates or drives the best performance and results.

One of the biggest questions regarding leadership styles is whether it’s better to lead from the front or from behind?

What if I told you that the answer to that question may be, “Neither?” But rather, perhaps the correct answer is that the most effective leaders, lead from the side?

First, it’s important to understand that all organizations need leaders, directors, managers, and workers. Sure, sometimes a single person might have to carry or wear more than one of those roles. However, from a high level perspective, the responsibilities and “duties” of leaders and directors are different, as well as those of managers and directors, and of course, of managers and leaders as well.

Typically, when it comes to the primary roles of of workers, managers, directors, and leaders:

  • Workers perform the “work” of the organization
  • Managers oversee the workers and systems used by the workers to accomplish objectives
  • Directors set strategy that the managers execute via the workers
  • Leaders set the future vision of the organization and rely on directors to create strategies to fulfill the vision

This is not to say that directors cannot be leaders or exhibit leadership, or that managers and even workers cannot demonstrate leadership characteristics either. But specifically, we are talking here about formal leaders, and not those that just assume or exhibit leadership qualities.

With that in mind, let’s go back to our primary question… if we are the leaders of our business or organization, will we get the best performance and results from our team by leading from the front, from behind, or as suggested above… by leading from the side?

Leading from the front requires that we “go first.” In other words, we provide the example that we want our teams to follow. However, one problem with this is that it can make our teams very dependent on our being out front, before they feel comfortable proceeding. Often, this can produce directors, managers, workers — and entire organizations — that don’t “step out” without following the leader. This can hinder the vision, creativity, and growth of individuals and the entire organization, alike.

On the other hand, leading from behind provides little direction but instead, guides directors to come up with their own ideas and solutions to fulfill the leader’s vision.

This can be empowering—or fatal—to an organization. A lot of whether this is a successful leadership strategy, or one that produces abysmal results, depends on the people in the director and management roles and the resources they have at their disposal. If we’ve hired well and given them the resources they need, it may very well work out. If we have not done those things—or even if the individuals involved are struggling at a specific time or place in their role—it may not.

Leading alongside a team blends these two ideas.

When a leader leads from the side, he or she sets the vision and then “coaches” directors and managers—and even workers—on how to proceed effectively toward the vision, in a cooperative, engaging, and interactive manner. A lot of times, you’ll heard that leaders who exhibit or practice this style, ‘get in the trenches’ with their team.

Truly, this type of leadership offers many different benefits. Not only does it help directors, managers, and workers feel supported, it keeps all parts of the human capital of an organization rowing the ship in the same direction. But then also, if roadblocks come up, the leader gets to see the grim details firsthand and are able to address, append, or modify their vision if necessary, in real time—before the train fully derails.

Leading alongside a team takes humility, patience, and trust. As Nathan Ryan says in a recent article, “…it [also] requires you to feel confident in the people around you, and their abilities—in fact, it means you hired the right people for the right positions in the first place. It requires you to cede the floor to each and every team member, regardless of “rank,” allow them to lead and make key decisions from time to time, and then help pick up the pieces and learn when mistakes are inevitably made.”[1]

[1] https://nthnryn.medium.com/dont-lead-from-the-front-or-the-back-lead-alongside-657535abdb29