Most people will almost instinctively answer the title question the same way. Great leaders lead from the front, they show you the way, they lead by example. But is this always the best way to lead?
An interesting conversation started in the Facebook Group with some of the members of a student leadership program that was initiated after a student posted the above image.
At first glance it makes a lot of sense. Mr. Rooster there is taking the lead, charging out in front and showing his team how it is done. He is not asking anyone to do something he is not brave enough to do himself. He is leading by example. His team looks hesitant, but at least one white chicken is ready to follow his example and charge out on to this rickety looking bridge across the river.
But then it hit me. What if our fearless Mr. Rooster breaks the bridge and gets swept away down the river? What if none of the chickens want to follow? What is a leader worth if he/she has no one to lead?
The theory of leading from behind proposes that a leader can see the needs of the team, encourage team members to develop themselves and take calculated risks and steps back to allow subordinates to emerge, lead and innovate. Power is shared with the leader forgoing their positional power and instead delegating decision making power to their team - albeit with sufficient information and boundaries.
A recent seminar I attended discussed leadership from a military perspective. The Army Leadership Model is based on the following 10 leadership traits:
Know yourself and seek self-improvement
Seek and accept responsibility
Lead by example
Know and care for your subordinates
Develop the potential of your subordinates
Make sound and timely decisions
Build the team and challenge it abilities
Keep your team informed
Some of these, specifically numbers 3 and 4 appear to advocate for the lead from the front style. However more of these appear to support the leading from behind theory - especially 5, 7, 9 and 10.
Naturally the above the picture is meant to be a little motivational meme for social media sites, but further analysis of the statement shows that this style of leadership can be interpreted in different ways. Different situations, personality types and team compositions may require the leader to adapt his approach to lead from the front, behind, or even a combination of the two. But a leader must always remember that just maybe the little red hen in the back has been here before and knows there is a solid stone bridge just 20 metres down the road.