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Rethinking Leadership: Do You Have to Lead from the Front if You’re Leading a Team?

July 26, 2022

As entrepreneurs and business owners, we’re often told that to lead means to guide the charge from the front. The assumption that the helm is the only legitimate place of leadership is a deep-rooted one, shaping our understanding of what it means to be a leader. But the truth is, leadership is not confined to the frontlines.

Contrary to this widely accepted belief, leaders can – and do – emerge from anywhere within an organization. In fact, effective leaders often find themselves alternating between leading from the front, the back, and the sides. Their position depends largely on the dynamics of their team, the task at hand, and the ultimate goal.

So what does it actually mean to lead from these different positions? Let’s delve into this multi-faceted concept of leadership.

"Dare to Lead" by Brene Brown, a book on how to lead from the front

What does it mean to lead from the front?

Leading from the front typically refers to showing the way by example. It’s about taking the initiative, setting standards, and embodying the values you want your team to uphold. However, this isn’t the only valid or effective form of leadership.

If a leader is leading from the front, it means they are playing a hyper-visible role in leading the direction of the organization, team, or company. Team leaders who adopt this style often have a take-charge attitude, have clear and inspiring vision, and have strong communication and connection skills.

In a word, they’re somewhat charismatic. Leaders who naturally lead from the front are able and eager to naturally connect with others and are often able to persuade others to join their forces, adopt their way of thinking, and believe in the vision so much they pour their own energy into it.

The Pros of this Type of Leadership Style

This type of leadership style is often found in entrepreneurs building teams – both because their vision requires a take-charge attitude and they have a passion for their vision that lends itself toward this style.

Team leaders who lead in this way are able to set clear direction, inspire others easily, recruit evangelists for their vision, and build businesses with mission and impact. Following a leader like this is exciting, motivating, and affirming – you believe and can see that what you’re doing matters.

The Cons of this Type of Leadership Style

Leaders who naturally lead from the front battle a few blind spots that naturally plague more charismatic, vision-filled, passionate leaders.

They may often stampede or bulldoze their team members and treat them more like followers instead of teammates and collaborators. They may also fall into the vision-trap. Meaning, they prioritize gut-feeling, passion, and vision over sound strategy, data, and research.

Tips for Leaders Who Naturally Lead from the Front

A vision-filled leader should intentionally surround themselves with team members and mentors who prioritize data, research, strategy and consistency. They should hire team members who aren’t afraid to speak up, present conflicting opinions and ideas, and offer challenging arguments.

If you’re currently serving as a leader from the front, remember – your main goal is to provide guidance to those behind you. It’s not about you and your vision, it’s about creating space for others in which they can showcase their strengths. It’s up to you to be able to clear the path for the people you are leading, and giving them the opportunity to fully thrive!

When to Embrace this Vanguard Position

Lean into leading from the front during times of major change or crisis. In such situations, your team requires a clear vision and decisive action. As the front-runner, you need to communicate your strategy clearly, embody the change you wish to see, and inspire confidence in your team.

For instance, if your organization is undergoing a merger or launch of a new product line, your team will be looking to you for guidance. Here, a ‘front and center’ leadership style will provide the needed direction and reassurance.

How to Be a Better Leader from the Front

Step outside of your comfort zone: The best way to get better at leading from the front is by taking on leadership roles that require you to make tough decisions, communicate clearly, and inspire others. This could mean volunteering for new projects, or stepping up in moments of crisis.

Invest in personal development: To lead others, you first need to lead yourself. Personal development workshops, leadership courses, reading leadership books, or even finding a mentor can help you develop the confidence and skills to lead from the front.

Do Leaders HAVE to Lead from the Front?

No! You do not have to lead from the front. There are many ways to lead and each leader has their own unique leadership style.

However, it is beneficial for all leaders – no matter their natural style – to practice cultivating a wide range of leadership skills so they can lead from the front when the situation or their team members require it. Skills required to lead from the front are strong and clear communication, vision-casting and communicating that vision, and seeking opportunities for growth and movement forward.

Leading from the Front vs. Leading from Behind

The idea that leaders can only lead from the front is false and creates a standard that you don’t have to meet! In fact, there are two other ways you can lead. 

The first is being coactive leader from behind, as is explained in the great book Co-Active Leadership.

People in this position are focused on serving. Leaders from behind are usually those that are used to being behind the scenes. Leading from behind means empowering your team members to take the initiative while providing guidance and support. It’s a style of leadership that champions the skills and capabilities of each team member, fostering a culture of trust and mutual respect. It’s less about dictating every move and more about facilitating success.

Supporting your team in this way doesn’t mean you aren’t a leader. On the contrary, you are able to lead by energetically pushing the team forward. You hold the team together and are there to provide encouragement and support. 

Natural leaders from behind usually have the following skills and strengths:

  • Active listening
  • Strong intuition
  • Delegation
  • Organization
  • Service
  • Anticipating needs
  • Believing in possibilities
  • Coaching

When to Cultivate Growth & Autonomy with this Leadership Style

Leading from behind is about letting your team take the reins, while you offer guidance and support. This leadership style is powerful when you want to encourage personal growth and autonomy, or when dealing with a highly skilled team that needs little direct supervision.

For example, when a team member is ready for more responsibility, allow them to lead a project while you provide support and advice when needed. This ‘lead from behind’ approach can empower them, helping to build their confidence and develop their leadership skills.

How to Be A Better Leader from Behind

Empower others: Give your team the autonomy to take charge of their tasks. Start with small responsibilities, and as their confidence grows, gradually increase their level of autonomy.

Provide constructive feedback: As a leader, your role is to guide and support your team. This involves giving regular, constructive feedback to help them understand their strengths and areas for improvement.

Be patient and persistent: Change takes time. Even if you don’t see immediate results, keep trying. Remember, leadership is a journey, not a destination.

Leading from the Front vs. Leading from Beside

Another kind of leadership style is a coactive leader beside. A leader in this position takes hold of a lot of responsibility. Their leadership manifests as someone who supports everyone’s strengths, which generates a powerful and positive synergy on the team.

Leading from the side entails working alongside your team, fostering a culture of collaboration. It emphasizes the “team” in teamwork and views leadership as a collective, rather than individual, endeavor.

Your leadership lies as someone who supports everyone’s strengths which generates a powerful and positive synergy amongst the team. This type of leader often manifests as a coach or mentor, often lending support and resources as the team journeys forward.

Natural leaders from beside usually have the following skills and strengths:

  • Strategy
  • Connection
  • Communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Change management
  • Implementation
  • Execution
  • Delegation
  • People management

When to Embrace this Collaborative Leadership Style

Adopting a side-by-side leadership style is particularly effective when dealing with complex problems that require diverse input and creative solutions. As a leader beside your team, you can foster a culture of open dialogue, shared responsibility, and mutual respect. This approach involves engaging your team in decision-making processes, actively seeking their input, and working collectively towards a solution.

For example, when your team is brainstorming new marketing strategies or tackling a challenging project, lead from the side. In this position, you encourage your team to voice their unique perspectives and collaborate, strengthening the team’s problem-solving abilities and fostering a sense of ownership.

How to Be a Better Leader from Beside

Master the art of active listening: This is key to effective collaborative leadership. Make a conscious effort to understand others’ perspectives, feelings, and ideas. Ask open-ended questions, paraphrase to confirm understanding, and give feedback.

Encourage and value input from others: Foster an inclusive culture where everyone feels their ideas are valued. When team members make suggestions, acknowledge their contributions, and if possible, incorporate their ideas into decisions and plans.

Defining Your Unique Leadership Style — Finding What Works for You!

What’s amazing about leadership is there is no single definition. As a leader you can thrive in any of these positions – leader from the front, behind, or beside. In fact, not only are these positions interchangeable, leaders should practice each leadership style to become a well-rounded leader for their team. 

Navigating the fluid spectrum of leadership requires self-awareness, adaptability, and empathy. As a leader, your role isn’t static but ever-changing, dependent on the needs of your team and the context. It’s about finding the balance between leading from the front, behind, and beside to guide your team towards shared success.

In the end, leadership isn’t about where you stand, physically or hierarchically. It’s about how effectively you can guide your team towards achieving shared goals, regardless of your position. As you explore these different manifestations of leadership, you can start defining your own unique leadership style, embracing the flexibility and fluidity that comes with being a modern-day leader.

I'm Kaylan, leadership educator, podcaster & speaker

What are you searching for?

Reading suggestions

Crafting a 90-Day Onboarding Plan

Job Postings that Attract Top Talent

Mapping Your Leadership Style