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Leaders Need to Be Where Their People Need Them

Where do you lead from? Is it from the front, issuing commands and carrying a flag? From the back, perhaps with just a nod and barely a whisper? Or do you lead from somewhere in the middle, relying on all kinds of declarations and hand signals?

Here’s the real deal: Despite your own personal preferences or tendencies, there is no correct, fixed place for leadership. It depends on the specifics of the present situation and the people involved. There’s a remarkably wide spectrum of effective leadership styles — from partnering and cajoling, to commanding and controlling — depending on the circumstances.

To the Frontlines

Leading from the front is often the most effective option when things are scary or unclear, or when people are determined not to change even though change is absolutely necessary. In these situations, you need to carry the banner, model the behavior, and set the tone — and make sure everything you do comes across loud and clear. That’s how to keep everyone together and heading in the right direction. The more disruptive the situation, the more you’re likely to need visible, apparent control, and the more people will need to see you and know where you are coming from.

Taking a Backseat

But keeping everyone together in a tightly disciplined way may not be the right approach when flexibility, nimbleness and resilience are called for. Once people understand where you want the organization to go and are competent in their skills and roles, they need less explicit direction and can break the lockstep to do whatever needs to be done, expanding the organization’s overall capacity and their own breadth and depth at the same time.

Holding the Center

When you have emergent leadership coming from within the team — that is, if you are willing to permit it and foster its growth — then leadership can be successful coming from anywhere. The ideas and practices matter just as much as who is espousing or demonstrating them.

The best leaders learn to be comfortable wherever the organization needs them to be: Sometimes your people need to see you out in front, giving them confidence in the journey and guiding them along the path. Other times, they need you to step back enough to create the room for them to find their own best way with your encouragement and support.

A Good Conductor Passes Along a Charge

Take a look at this wonderful TED talk by Itay Talgam, a symphony conductor-turned-leadership development consultant. The description says: “An orchestra conductor faces the ultimate leadership challenge: creating perfect harmony without saying a word. In this charming talk, Itay Talgam demonstrates the unique styles of six great 20th-century conductors, illustrating crucial lessons for all leaders.”

Don’t worry if you’ve never liked classical music. You can even watch the video without the sound — I checked — and the different styles of leadership will still be clear. But don’t do that — you’ll miss out on too much. It’s too good to be able to hear Talgam’s commentary — he’s funny and clever, and it’s well worth listening to every bit of his discussion of the various conducting styles. Plus, you can see how much the audience enjoys it too.

Now picture yourself, your colleagues, and the leaders you know seated in a concert audience, playing in the orchestra, and standing at the podium ready to conduct. What would each person need to learn and do to be successful in each spot?

Onward and upward,


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