Leadership Spotlight

Should You Always Lead from the Front?

Stock image of man holding a triangle of human figures.

When answering this question, the majority of people will say “of course.” Leaders should set the example and remain willing to do whatever they ask of their followers. A valid argument, but is it correct?

Researchers have argued that a leader must personify the in-group prototype.1 Someone willing to be the “tip of the spear” in a search warrant, arrest, or crisis action seems to satisfy that particular rule. Given this it may seem that leading from the front would be standard practice for you and all leaders.

However, other points of view deserve consideration. In my leadership class, students see a picture of a group with one member in front and one lagging behind the others. The objective for the students is to determine which group member is the leader. The natural inclination for many students is to pick the group member in front. However, in the last class a student with substantial military experience found his choice obvious and the opposite of the majority.

When asked to explain his viewpoint, he categorized the group member in front as the tactical leader and the one in back as the strategic leader. To him the strategic leader held more importance than the tactical leader. To support his argument, he opined the tactical leader would be unaware of what was transpiring behind him and, therefore, could not adjust as needed. On the other hand the strategic leader would be able to see the situation unfold and quickly adapt to any unforeseen circumstance.

To be an effective leader, you need to be agile enough to move to the front, the middle, and the back depending on the situation, as well as the needs of your followers. On some occasions, you will need to be in front and set the example, while in other cases it may be best to lag behind and allow one of your followers to take the lead. By doing so, you will set the example, empower your followers, and leave a legacy for your organization.

Too often we lead from the front for selfish reasons. Being the tip of the spear is exhilarating and gives us the chance to showcase our skills. Adulation and glory are addictive, but is self-aggrandizement really something you are trying to achieve as a leader? Doubtful. That is why you are now being issued a challenge. As the leader do you have enough confidence in yourself to know when to step forward and when to step back?

Special Agent M. Bret Hood, an instructor in the Law Enforcement Development Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.


S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher, and Michael J. Platow, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence, and Power (New York, NY: Psychology Press, 2011).