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Leading From The Side

Leading From The Side

Why horses make the best leaders!

How many times have you heard the phrase “leaders should be in the front”?  Come on…I’m sure you’re having a childhood flashback of a parent or teacher nudging you to be a leader and sit in the front.  While the intentions of parents and community members are to encourage individuals to not be shy, it produced a warped view of where leaders should be positioned.  Any leader that takes only one or two predominant positions within their leadership style will have trouble retaining and engaging their employees. For the changing workforce, leadership will need to adapt a blended leadership style that leverages leadership alongside the team to enhance performance and work.  

The best way to view this position is to look at the way horses are trained and work together.  It may sound strange to learn from horses, but it is a great way to demonstrate leadership from all sides.  Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling’s research observed that there are three different leadership roles in a herd of horses:

  • Leader at the Front – setting the pace, tone, destination, and direction
  • Leader from the Side – coaching and mentoring with the group to ensure that the herd is moving together in the same direction
  • Leader from the Back – driving the team forward and keeping momentum to make sure that no one falls behind

In your organization, the CEO or Director may often demonstrate leading from the front.  It is important that those within those roles within an organization set the tone and direction for the company.  You must do this with confidence. However, when a front-line manager uses this style only, he/she may quickly lose the ability to keep in touch with team members and how they are driving towards the shared goal.  Many front-line managers also master leading from the back. With the boom of pay-for-performance and other technology, managers constantly assess whether team members are achieving goals and/or falling behind. Leaders that only lead from the back can be viewed as taskmasters or dictators.  While both leading from the front and back are necessary, the styles should not be the only two used within a team.  

The key for organizations to enhance the experience and capability of their talent is to spend more time leading from the side.  Once you have set the pace for your team (leading from the front) and shared the outcomes for which you will hold them accountable (leading from the back), it is imperative that you begin to lead from the side.  One-on-one meetings, coaching sessions, and check-ins with your team help a leader stay in touch with their employees to ensure consistent alignment with the vision and targeted momentum. In the same way that the leading horse cannot always stay alongside the herd, a manager cannot always primarily coach from the side.  

The savvy leader takes the time while being on the side to find those strong team members that can help coach and mentor from the side when they have to balance leading from the front or back.  Consider: 

  1. Who on your team(s) have you identified that understand your vision and are great at mirroring your vision, tone, and pace? 
  2. Are these individuals respected by your team?
  3. Are they performing well within their role? 

If you’ve identified these team members that are high-performing and work well interpersonally, you can maximize their potential and your team’s performance by having them serve as a coach or mentor.  Using your SMEs and high performers to help mentor and guide the team duplicates your ability to lead from the side. 

If you are interested in learning how to identify and cultivate an environment of leading from the side, check out the resources at eMentorConnect.  They can quickly help you build a custom process for your organization to quickly leverage the strength of high performers in guiding your team to success.  


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Yolanda Johnson, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
yolanda.a.johnson@gmail.com

Highly energetic and enthusiastic HR professional. Skilled in aligning business strategy with talent management programs that initiate and sustain corporate culture change. Demonstrated ability to apply a systematic process for analyzing human performance gaps and closing them