Want to Lead? Get Out in Front

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I don’t know how anyone got the idea that a leader could sit back and lead from somewhere in the rear, but it's sheer balderdash. There is only one place from which you can lead effectively, and that’s from right up front. This means you get to take the risks, make the sacrifices, and get beat up just like the rest of your team.

The Mystery of Jeanne d'Arc

Jeanne d'Arc (or Joan of Arc in English) provides a most amazing story, and to borrow from the title of a series on the History Channel, a very prominent example of one of "History’s Mysteries."

The true tale of Joan of Arc unfolded during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England in the 15th Century. England had invaded France, and the as yet uncrowned King Charles VII tried desperately, but unsuccessfully, to free his country from the English invaders.

Out of nowhere this young, teenage girl appeared. She was about eighteen. She was uneducated and not of noble birth. She had no special physical or mental prowess or previous training or experience in warfare. She somehow managed to gain an audience with the future French king.

It would seem impossible that anyone would turn over the command of an army to an uneducated girl based on her extraordinary claim: God himself directed her to do so. However, it is no mystery why the king eventually agreed to Joan’s incredible request. Even the king’s advisors said, "Give her the command. We’ve tried everything else." It was about the only thing they had not tried.

The mystery is how, in an age without equal rights for women, this young, uneducated peasant girl could have possibly succeeded where seasoned French generals had failed. Her first battle was at Orleans. For eight months, the French Army had tried to break an English siege of the town. It had failed utterly. Then Joan was given command and took charge. She broke the siege in just eight days!

Interviews with the Maid of Orleans

Until captured by the English, the French Army, led by Joan, had an almost unbroken string of victories. How in the world did Joan do it? The answers to these questions can be found in Joan’s trial by her captors. What she dared and achieved was so amazing that her accusers thought she must have allied with the devil. Her responses to them were so self-condemning and honest that they might as well have been given during a calm news interview with a 15th century equivalent to Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley, or Brian Williams. It might have gone something like this:

"How do you do it? Do you like to fight? Did you receive special training in swordsmanship or warfare when you were growing up in your village?"

"No. Personally, I don’t like or even know how to fight very well. But I have a large banner which all of my soldiers recognize. I look at the battlefield and see where the important action is and where it is crucial that we are in order. I ride to that position. My soldiers see my banner and where I have ridden. They join me, and we win."

I should add that Joan was shot in the neck by an arrow in her very first battle, but returned to the fight even though seriously wounded. Mystery solved. Joan got out in front and always went where the action was. Even with no military education or experience of any kind, her soldiers went where they had to be, and she commanded them to victory repeatedly.

Leading from an Air Conditioned Office Is Not Recommended

If you want to accomplish impossible tasks and projects—extreme turnarounds, high velocity, first-to-the-market new product introductions, or wildly effective, unexpected competitive strategies—you’ve got to be right on the firing line, regardless of hardship or risk. You cannot lead from an air conditioned office; you must be out there in front where things are actually happening. Napoleon once said, "March to the sound of the guns."

Tom Peters, the business writer and speaker, popularized a simple way for managers to imitate this in today’s management world. Peters’ version recommended a leadership technique which he called "management by wandering around." You didn’t have to march, but you sure as heck had to be where the action was.

You Need to Be Where the Action Is

Yes, the key is to be where the action is. That accomplishes two very important heroic leadership tasks. First, your followers can see you where things are happening, actually sharing their problems, hardships, failures and successes. It’s an important axiom that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and being where the action is insures that you can immediately see what’s happening and can take immediate action where necessary. You can cut through layers of potential miscommunication and talk directly with those of your people who must get the job done. They can then take action immediately without wasting time for information to reach you and for your decisions to go back through your chain of subordinate leaders.

You Must Be There to Lead and Be Seen

Sometimes, just being there, taking charge, and taking the necessary action can have a tremendous effect. One of my first jobs when I left the military was working as director of research and development for Sierra Engineering Company. A larger corporation has since absorbed this company, which was in turn later absorbed by another company. However, thirty years ago Sierra Engineering Company was well-known by name in the field of aviation life support equipment.

A man by the name of Aaron Bloom hired me. He was the company’s president and my direct supervisor. The company produced just about every military oxygen mask made for U.S. and allied forces that used U.S. aircraft. It also manufactured oxygen masks used by civilian airline pilots and the emergency yellow oxygen masks you see demonstrated before take-off whenever you fly today.

Years earlier, Aaron Bloom had been my predecessor as director of research and development and was then promoted to vice president of engineering. However, a year or so after his promotion, he was fired by the then president of the company.

Sierra Tries to Enter a New Market

The man who fired Bloom had made some very bad business decisions; he tried to enter the jet pilot protective helmet business. He not only lost a lot of money but invested employee retirement funds in his efforts. In disgrace, he committed suicide. Leaderless, the company shrunk from more than three hundred to less than fifty employees.

Aaron Bloom to the Rescue

The bank contacted Aaron Bloom and brought him back in to run the company and see if it could be saved. Ten years later when I arrived on the scene, the company had long since recovered. How had Bloom turned things around? Bloom knew that to save the company, they needed an immediate cash flow. Contracts with the government were pending. If they could deliver the goods, they would receive money and this would buy the company survival time. Materials and machinery were already on hand to produce the helmets. The problem was there was no longer a work force to either manufacture or assemble them, or packers to pack the helmets properly to ship them to their destination.

Bloom called everyone together and told them what needed to be done. To save the company, all employees had to work and perform their regular jobs at peak efficiency from eight to five. Then, all of them—senior executives, engineers, secretaries, and janitors—would report to the assembly line and take their orders from the few remaining production supervisors as they worked for four more hours building the helmets.

Bloom led the way. He was on the production line with his sleeves rolled up every night, working alongside everyone else. They got the helmets out, and Bloom was able to keep things going until the company worked itself out of chapter 11 protection two years later. Company sales were at an all-time high by the time I arrived, and the number of employees had returned to normal.

The lesson to me was very clear: The centerpiece of Bloom’s turnaround was getting out in front and being where the critical action was taking place—in this case where the helmets were assembled.

So the essence of good heroic leadership is not to hide away somewhere where you can make decisions under reduced pressure, but to be where the action is. You must feel that pressure, and make good decisions anyway.