Sunday, October 30, 2011

Leading From The Middle: A New Paradigm for Leadership in the 21st Century

Not too long ago, in a meeting with some talented high school students in Harare, Zimbabwe, I was asked my leadership preference; leading from the front and pulling people along, or from the rear, pushing them. In my response, I talked about the need for leaders to create vision, build teams, and have consideration for the personal and professional needs of those they lead. I talked about the US Army motto, “Mission first, people always,” and concluded that perhaps my preferred position to lead from is the middle.

It wasn’t meant to be a glib answer; it just sort of worked out that what I usually did was lead from within any organization. Sometimes I push, but I try not to do that too much. At other times, I’m out front and urging others to keep up, but again, I find that is not the most effective really.

Since that meeting, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I hit on something that I’ve always known, but just never gave a lot of thought to. Where do the most effective leaders lead from? Part of the problem in coming to a conclusion on that is the way we tend to view leadership, and the very words we use. To lead seems to imply either pushing or pulling, and to follow indicates subordination. But, is that really the most effective way to lead? After some months of reflection, I think not.

I’ve said it and written it many times; the best leaders are visionaries. They are people who see the future, and have the ability to communicate that vision to others and inspire them to take the journey. Sometimes they push, and sometimes they pull, but more often than not, they simply encourage. They get people to go along with them; not through bossing them around from behind, or exhorting from the front. They do it as an integral member of the teams they create. They people to go along, as former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said in his autobiography, “An American Journey,” out of curiosity. They do it because you’ve been able to convince them that your vision can become reality, and they want to go along with you to achieve it. The best quarterback, in the game of American football (and I make that distinction because some of my readers think of football as the English game of soccer) lead their teams not from the front or back, but from the middle of the melee.

I’ve been thinking back to my days in the army, when I was taught how to be an effective platoon leader, the first leadership position occupied by most second lieutenants. Even with the US Infantry motto, emblazoned on the base at Fort Benning, Georgia, “Follow Me,” platoon leaders who are most successful in accomplishing their assigned mission do it neither from the rear nor the front, but ‘with’ their men. They share the hardships of their men, letting them know that they will ask nothing of them that they, as leader, are not willing to do. You do that from within, not from in front or behind.

I don’t think I’ve hit on anything new. The most effective leadership is from the middle, from within. Then again, maybe this is something we haven’t thought about enough. I think it’s worth further study, and I fully plan to research it more thoroughly. I hope those of you reading this will be willing and eager to go along with me.