Contrary to our normal idea of leadership, the primary role of the leader is not leading from the front. The leader’s first responsibility is to co-ordinate his team.
We normally think of leadership as leading from the front. We think leaders are supposed to work as hard as anybody else, getting their hands dirty with the daily mundane chores. We expect leaders to live by the mantra “first in, last to leave”.
There is an element of truth to this. Marius was the Roman general who transformed the Roman army from a part-time militia into a professional full-time killing machine. As Plutarch records,
“He surpassed his equals in rank by the advice he gave and his foresight into what was needed, and he won much affection from the soldiers by showing that he could live as frugally as they did and endure as much. Indeed it seems generally to be the case that our labours are eased when someone goes out of his way to share them with us; it has the effect of making the labour not seem forced. And what a Roman soldier likes most to see is his general eating his ration of bread with the rest, or sleeping on an ordinary bed, or joining in the work of digging a trench or raising a palisade.”
It was Marius’ willingness to work alongside his men which won his soldiers’ hearts, and made him such an effective leader.
But if the leader is simply the hardest worker then he isn’t a leader.
My family likes watching Masterchef. In the team challenges, we noticed that the most successful teams were those where the team captain did not cook! Rather, he would co-ordinate his team, walking up and down the kitchen, seeing that everybody had a job to do, helping a cook get over a hurdle, and so forth. The team captains that cooked alongside their teammates usually proved too busy cooking to actually lead.
I had an experience like that recently as well. I found myself in charge of the technology team for a 3-day kid’s program, and we had to set up the sound system on Sunday afternoon. I quickly discovered that it was not a good idea for me to be running around chasing down microphones, cords and laptops myself. Instead, I stayed in one place and sent my teammates on those errands, and spent my time giving them jobs to do. This made the process a lot easier. I was always there to see what jobs were done or needed doing, and my team always knew where to find me.
If I had been running errands all day, I wouldn’t have there to lead my team. I wouldn’t have been in the right headspace to see how all these different errands fit into the big picture.
For that is the role of the leader. The leader’s job is to see where the team wants to go and how to get there. It is then the leader’s job to co-ordinate the efforts of every team member so that we can work together to get there.
No leader should ask a follower to do what the leader isn’t prepared to do himself. That’s what the legionaries appreciated about Marius. He was humble enough to be prepared to work.
But being prepared to do a follower’s job isn’t the same as always doing it. Leaders will be the first to arrive and the last to leave. But their workload sometimes looks different. It looks like co-ordinating efforts instead of doing it all yourself. It looks like inspiring others to tackle problems, as well as tackling it yourself. Stepping back to see the problem and the solution is just as important as stepping up to fix it.