by Stephen T. Messenger
January 1, 2021
The most powerful words any leader can say are “Follow me.” Leaders lead from the front and are the first to walk into any conflict—be it the field of battle or boardroom. You cannot expect your team to do what you say unless you do what you said. Leaders have a wide variety of managerial tasks they must accomplish on any given day. However, they must also understand the challenges and difficulties at the most junior level of the organization and be willing to participate in the hardships that employees face in their lives. Leaders must match their words to their actions, and nothing is more potent than “Follow me!”
World War II Soldier Aubrey S. Newman, United States Army Infantry Colonel, led his regiment in an amphibious assault onto the shores of Leyte, Philippines on October 20, 1944. The Japanese responded with withering fire and pinned the men down on the beaches. Colonel Newman rose up, ran forward, and yelled, “Follow me!” leading the unit to overrun the enemy defenses. These iconic words are memorialized on a statue of a soldier leading troops forward into battle outside the infantry school in Fort Benning, Georgia, and have become the motto of United States Army Infantry. Leaders lead from the front.
Standing in front of your team and describing the game plan requires key leadership attributes. It takes a mix of planning, organizing, and preparing to move your group from concept to action. However, once the proverbial (or real) bullets start flying, leaders have to be with their teams directing the next move. The wartime classic Heartbreak Ridge depicts a strong contrast to Colonel Newman. Lieutenant Ring, Clint Eastwood’s platoon leader, gives a rousing speech to motivate his marines before a wargame. However, they are dressed battle with weapons and battle gear, while he remains in garrison uniform and fails to accompany the men to the field. Their leader is at home preparing a paper on tactics and strategy, while they learn and execute tactics and strategy. The Marines take notice and lose respect for their supposed leader.
There is nuance however to leading from the front. After all, when not in conventional war, it’s hard to identify where the forward position may be. A leader must position himself at the point of friction. Sometimes this is leading men off the beach to attack the enemy, but sometimes it’s about being in the command post to organize logistics for follow-on missions or in the sales office encouraging increased productivity. A leader does not always need to lead every action, but to be willing to perform any action that he asks of his people. Great leaders conduct what the military calls battlefield circulation otherwise known as management by walking around. This is when the leader gets out of his office and joins the team in their duties. Some examples are:
– conducting interviews with human resources
– helping unload a truck on the loading dock
– making cold calls with the sales team
– taking out the trash in the breakroom
– Penning personal hand-written notes to employees
These actions show that a leader is willing, but not required, to understand more of the day-to-day challenges the team faces. No longer is the boss considered sitting in the ivory tower but is part of the team, facing the same gratification and frustration seen in the trenches every day. This knowledge can then be used to make better decisions to resource the team. Moreover, battlefield circulation shows empathy, caring, and passion for people. It may be the most important thing you do all day.
Leaders have to get demonstrate their willingness to get their hands dirty and perform any action asked of the organization. They must be as comfortable in the meeting room as in the mailroom. They speak frequently with the most junior leaders of the team and have their finger on the pulse of the unit. The best leaders both manage from the point of friction and strategically look to the next decisive action. Colonel Newman knew this well. The majority of his command, he was planning, preparing, and assessing his regiment for organizational success. But he knew that when the team was pinned down and shows signs of stagnation, it is time for the boss to get out front and shout, “Follow me!”