Lead from the front or from the back?

A young colleague asked me recently how a leader reconciles the challenge to “lead from the front” with the recognition that much of the most effective leadership happens “from the back” (a lesson I recognized and attempted to articulate relatively late).

My own leadership journey was shaped as a 22 year old infantry officer. I was inspired by the sign over the door of the Ft. Benning infantry school way back when we were still waiting for Ivan in the Fulda Gap: “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.” The school motto is “Follow Me.” With that as background (and the subtitle of this blog site) this tension between back and front struck me as a topic worth considering and provided the chance to write (after an embarrassingly long silence!) And it made me think of Julius Caesar.

“Omnia uno tempore agenda” (“Everything had to be done at once”) is how in his “Gallic Wars,” Julius Caesar described his response to an attack by the Nervii, the fiercest of the Belgic tribes of Northern Gaul in modern day northern France (57 BCE). The attack came at three different points while part of his army was crossing a river and another part was building camp. Caesar describes in characteristic third person “the stress of the moment:”

“Caesar had everything to do at one moment — the flag to raise, as signal of a general call to arms; the trumpet-call to sound; the troops to recall from entrenching; the men to bring in who had gone somewhat farther afield in search of stuff for the ramp; the line to form; the troops to harangue; the signal to give. A great part of these duties was prevented by the shortness of the time and the advance of the enemy…” (II.20).

Caesar details a time of crisis. There was tremendous risk of failure and destruction to his army and to his mission. He describes the chaos that is characteristic of the heat of battle. And he describes “the shortness of time” or “chronos” (“time” in ancient Greek).

At one point in the battle, his Twelfth Legion was in trouble, fighting too closely bunched together, and without many of their small unit leaders (centurions) who had been lost to wounds. Caesar describes his own response to the crisis, chaos and the time-pressure of “chronos:”

“He perceived that his men were hard pressed … he likewise perceived that the rest were slackening their efforts … having therefore snatched a shield from one of the soldiers in the rear (for he himself had come without a shield), he advanced to the front of the line, and addressing the centurions by name, and encouraging the rest of the soldiers, he ordered them to carry forward the standards and extend the companies, that they might the more easily use their swords…” (II.25)

This was a time for the leader to lead from the front. Caesar demonstrated character and courage by personally assuming the risk of failure and death. He demonstrated leader competence by recognizing that his troops were leaderless and faltering: “He perceived that all the centurions of the fourth cohort were slain, and the standard- bearer killed, the standard itself lost… He likewise perceived that the rest were slackening their efforts, and that some, deserted by those in the rear, were retiring from the battle and avoiding the weapons” (II.25).

Caesar recognized the context of the fight with the loss of the leaders, also seeing that they were crowded together in the forest, and “That the affair was at a crisis, and that there was not any reserve which could be brought up” (II.25). And he recognized the critical importance of communication. He called to his centurions “by name;” relying on efforts he had made to know his men personally prior to the battle (having perhaps abandoned the too convenient excuse, “I’m sorry I’m just not good with names”). He called out and encouraged the rest of the soldiers. He knew exactly what they needed to hear.

Crisis, chaos and “chronos” are three occasions when a leader should lead from the front.

Caesar also identified at least two occasions when it is appropriate even in the midst of urgency to lead from the back.

“The stress of the moment was relieved by two things: the knowledge and experience of the troops — for their training in previous battles enabled them to appoint for themselves what was proper to be done as readily as others could have shown them — and the fact that Caesar had forbidden the several lieutenant-generals to leave the entrenching and their proper legions until the camp was fortified. These generals, seeing the nearness and the speed of the enemy, waited no more for a command from Caesar, but took on their own account what steps seemed to them proper” (II.20).

The Roman legions were well trained and well led by commanders that Caesar trusted; who applied their own initiative and creativity to the situation and did “on their own account what steps to them seemed proper.” Even in crisis and chaos, leaders need to lead from the back when they know that their organizations are well trained and that they are led by men and women whom they trust. The temptation to micromanage a project or its architect and to take credit for its success are ways that a leader can move “to the front” when it would be best for him or her to step back and let the group or emerging leader shine.

The use of Caesar’s writing about his imperial exploits is not meant to justify the geo-political drive to conquest any more than it would be to use the example of corporate raids or take-overs motivated by greed. But leaders with any experience know that it only takes a single organizational misstep and social media post or market fluctuation to suddenly create a time-pressed, chaotic, crisis.

It is nice to be able to write your own history. (Is this account the ancient equivalent of a modern-day CEO memoir?) Caesar concludes with what we would hope to realize from our own leadership efforts: “On his arrival, as hope was brought to the soldiers and their courage restored, while everyone for his own part, in the sight of his general, desired to exert his utmost energy, the impetuosity of the enemy was a little checked” (II.25).

The enemy’s impetuosity was “A little checked;” at least for a day.

Tomorrow will be another opportunity to find the balance between leading from the front and from the back.

Chuck Callahan Henry V 4.3 – Lead from the Front https://henryv43.wordpress.com/


Filed under Organizational Leadership, Personal Leadership

3 responses to “Lead from the front or from the back?

  1. Sss

    Thanks for the reminder. Caesar in the third person – not as practical as Aubrey Neuman’s “Follow Me” series of books read long ago in a place far away, hence the Ft. Benning motto! (grin)

  2. Excellent reminder of Ceasar’s leadership skills. “Lead, follow or get out of the way” is relevant for enhancing GME leadership skills to transform PGY1s through deliberate mentoring as an intervention for curricular gaps.

  3. Pingback: chrisxseattle

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