Does A Leader Lead From The Front Or Push From The Back


Tuesday, 7.41am

Sheffield, U.K.

An executive picked up one of his employees in a new sports car. “This is an amazing automobile,” the employee remarked. “It is nice”, the executive replied, “And if you set your goals high and work hard I can get an even better one next quarter.”Provided by James R. Martin

What comes to mind when you think of a leader – as someone who is going to take charge and sort it all out? What kind of models do we have and what is it that happens around us that we take for granted? I’m doing a course in Leadership at the moment and have been introduced to a few models – so perhaps I should start by taking a critical look at them and seeing if they describe what I see around me.

But first let’s start with an example. A few posts ago I mentioned that I was looking at music again – after decades without any interest. You’ve probably heard of the reticular activating system – when you start paying attention to something you start to notice it everywhere. And so I started watching “Mozart in the jungle” on Prime – a story about an orchestra and a story riddled with the challenges of leadership.

Imagine the leader of an orchestra, the conductor, the person in charge. Our image of that person is staid, dignified, controlled. And the story breaks that, introducing a conductor who is different, out of control, passionate about the music who wants musicians who “play with blood”. One conductor is past his prime, respected and liked but no longer perfect. The other is driven, intense, at the top of his game, able to pick out every error. The orchestra has slowly deteriorated under the first conductor, looking a bit worn, fraying at the edges – no longer the best. What does the new conductor need to do to get them back up again, get them performing and being the best?

One leadership model that’s introduced here is the idea of the relationship between the leader and the led as being a “mothering” one, where the leader looks after their brood, holding their hands while they try and walk. A variant of this idea is the leader as a coach, someone who is able to act as a critical friend and tell you what is going wrong, the things that others won’t tell you and will hold you to account for improving them.

When I read these approaches I am reminded of Ernesto Sirolli’s observation that people who try and help others are often patronizing or paternalistic. The “mothering” approach fits into the paternalistic criteria – I know more than you and so I’m going to treat you like a little child and help you learn and grow and be there for you. But you have to follow my rules in my house and do as I say or be punished. The patronizing approach comes with a view that says I know more than you, so just be quiet and listen, I’ll tell you what to do. I have to say I’m very guilty of both these approaches – after all, I use GNU/Linux and, as Scott Adams writes, “If you have any trouble sounding condescending, find a Unix user to show you how it’s done.”

We have two things with the conductor story that we need to see. The first is whether the leader is better than everyone else or whether the leader is best at getting the best out of everyone else – and those two things are not the same. And then there is the relationship between the conductor and the band – if it’s too close and you’re seen as one of the gang you can no longer make the hard decisions and you run the risk of being seen to have favorites and being partial. How much distance is the right distance to keep from those you lead?

A different model of leadership comes from the military, or at least the British military mindset from the last century. This is one that has been transmitted through the culture I have been exposed to and from what I’ve read and basically comes down to something like this. You have people who do work – the ones with the brawn and the expertise to work a piece of kit to perfection. And then you have people who make decisions – the ones with the brains and the ability to work out what should be done. That’s why the army has a soldier track and an officer track and experienced soldiers are often led by much younger, inexperienced officers who, over time, get better at making the calls. The same model extends to healthcare. You have nurses and doctors and, if you’ve ever seen Scrubs, there’s a scene where a young doctor talks about how, in the beginning the nurses know how to do everything and mother the doctor but after a while the training kicks in and the doctor knows more about the medication and doses and what needs to be done next than the nurses do – whose role is now to follow the doctor’s orders.

Set against these models is a post-modern approach based on a flat hierarchy made of networks, people of capability coming together to create something greater than they could individually. This is something that Transactional Analysis (TA) captures as it talks about everyone having a Parent, Adult and Child inside them. We can all play these roles in various situations but what we’re aiming for is an Adult-Adult relationship. As a leader, you want to have adult conversations with those around you about what your purpose is, what approach to take and what needs to happen next.

Unfortunately, there are many things that stand in the way of being able to have truly adult conversations, not the least of which is we have very few models of what good looks like. That’s perhaps where therapy comes in – instead of leadership training we should perhaps first go through a course of therapy, learning how to let go of the assumptions and fears that we’ve been exposed to and learning how to say what we think in a way that helps to start and move a conversation along – which ends with a better understanding of each other.

But what stops us from being able to have these conversations in the first place? It’s probably our history, what we’ve learned about the way communication works in society. Every family has experience of the tensions and challenges that come with thinking something and saying it. Do you have that relative who explodes with anger if you ever say anything critical about something? Do you have that person who gets upset about what you meant? The difficult is that we all learn how to speak but few of us learn to communicate – and it all starts with the first group we are part of – our family and our kin.

We should look at those dynamics a bit more in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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