Leading From The Front Is Finished

When I was first intentionally learning leadership around 25 years ago the common approaches were based in military or sports metaphors. The experts and authors were almost exclusively white males, and the leader’s role was to set the direction, set the pace, and set the example. I loved that idea. Unfortunately it turns out I’m not all that good at it, and I find it hard to trust those who claim they are. Too many of these heroic leaders have turned out to be at least as imperfect as all the rest of us, and many of their falls from grace were dramatic, public, and embarrassing, leaving huge numbers of disillusioned people in the wake. The common response from similar high profile leaders has been to raise the bar. We challenge leaders to hold higher standards, be more committed, and institute more safeguards and boundaries to defend ourselves against our weaknesses and the temptations and attacks of our enemies. Unfortunately all that seems to have done is to further distance high profile leaders from the people they must understand if they aspire to lead well. Maybe we’ve been moving in the wrong direction. More and more I’m finding that the leaders I admire are the ones who don’t run ahead, publish formulaic books, or speak at the largest events. Like many of my peers (and it seems most of those a decade or more younger than myself) I have greater respect for leaders who step off the stage, admit their failures, and elevate others at every opportunity. Some say this is a generational shift, others see it as part of greater gender and ethnic diversity in leadership. I’ll let the experts and researchers sort that out. What interests me is that the image of the superhuman leader who inspires through personal excellence, never makes mistakes, and pulls followers along through the gravitational power of their charisma is in decline. What seems to be following is what is too easily labeled as “authenticity”. What it may more accurately be is a new embracing of what Albert Camus wrote at least three generations ago:

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. Leadership as friendship may not sell a lot of books, and it may not sound like leadership to those who are most invested in the established model; but I’m ready to explore just how effective it will be in the years to come. Are you seeing or experiencing the same shift I think I am?