When I was in the Army, I noticed two kinds of officers – those that led from the front with their troops, and those that led from the rear.  I trusted both from a battlefield strategy standpoint, but I was much more willing to sacrifice for those who I actually knew.  In fact, I often thought about it in these very simple terms – either I’d be honored to lay down my life for this person, or… well, you get the idea.

In the Army there were far more officers who led from the front than not.  In an organization that places a higher premium on leadership than any I have experienced since, frontline leadership was a cultural norm.  Why, then, do so few business leaders participate in the fight, get to know their people, and lead with their boots actually in the mud?

Here are a few of the excuses I often hear when I broach this topic:

  • Image. “I have a big office, and I am supposed to have big meetings in my big office.”  Baloney.  The best meetings happen outside of our offices… with our people and (dare I say) our customers. Fact – most senior executives spend very little time with either.
  • Time.I am so busy with so much to do that I just don’t have time to get to the front lines as often as I’d like to.”  We all make time for our priorities… that’s just the truth.  If you don’t have time for frontline leadership, then it simply is not a priority for you – plain and simple.
  • I’m too important! “I have big decisions to make, and I need to be available to make those big decisions.”  If this applies to you, you are not empowering your people.  You should be pushing decision-making to the fringes of your organization.  Be careful not to become a bottleneck, as you need your organization moving at the speed-of-battle, lest you face certain defeat.

The list goes on and on. The most important thing is not what we do today, but what we do from this day forward. Use the following strategies to break your reclusive management habits and become a frontline leader before it’s too late!

  1. Understand Your Factory Setting – If you lead from the rear, understand that this is your factory setting… but don’t accept it.  Remain conscious of your factory setting and refocus yourself at every opportunity.
  2. Schedule It – This is the simplest of all strategies. It’s hard to make time for anything if we do not plan for it in advance… especially the things that take us away from our factory setting. The easiest way to ensure you do something is to commit to it and schedule it.  Stop reading! Do this now!
  3. Embrace the “Bullets” – Stepping onto the frontlines exposes you to the same enemy fire your team is facing on a daily basis. Embrace it, as these bullets will not actually hurt you… they will help you! The world is changing at an incredible pace, so don’t assume you understand what your team is facing because you were once in their shoes…that’s naive.
  4. Engage – One of the worst mistakes you can make is to go to the front and not engage once there. Your team deserves your full and undivided attention, and they will remember whether or not you give it to them. Clear your schedule, stay off the phone, and let the emails pile up – the rest of your world will wait for you, but those you lead will not if you do not engage.
  5. Chow Time – One of the best ways to build trust and rapport with those you lead is to break bread with them… often. Make it special, and spend a little extra on a nice bottle of wine and a great restaurant. Reality check – if you’re not doing this with your best people, somebody else is.
  6. Say “No” – Leading from the front means you have to say no to the rest of the things that are currently getting in the way, which takes courage.  Remember – you’re the boss. Don’t fall victim to the volume and velocity of meetings and projects coming your way. Delegate and get out of the way.
  7. Open Up – Schedule one-on-ones regularly with your team… several levels down. If you lead a very large organization and are struggling to make time, do what I often do – open yourself up for a day or two of 15 minute 1:1s, available on a first come, first-served basis. Aside from getting a very strong pulse on your organization, you will also get a sense of talent and engagement by seeing who actually raises their hand.
  8. Communicate – I am amazed at the lack of communication from senior leaders. Presence is everything in leadership, and your team expects it of you! Use a variety of tools to be present and visible – town halls (in person or via phone), email, social media, etc. I suggest communicating in some form at least once every week (every other week at a minimum). If you are not a natural communicator, enlist help from those who are.
  9. Keep It Real – Be yourself.  Be comfortable letting people see the real you, rather than the “corporate” you. We naturally follow those who engage us, inspire us, and connect with us.  Remember – you are a real person, and your team deserves to know you.
  10. Style – I’ll leave this one for you to define, as the real key is doing it all in your own style…just as long as you do it.

Step out from behind the glass and join your team in the fight today! They need you… more than you might think.

From the Front,

Doug's Signature


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I am the Chief Sales Officer at McGraw-Hill Higher Education. More
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