Leading from the Front

- D. Quinn Mills, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School.

A leader should be careful not to get too far ahead of her followers.  

Imagine that you are leading a parade. You start out at the front of the column and every one can see you easily and follows. But you move more rapidly than the column. After a while, you are turning corners in the street well ahead of the column. Then the people in the column can no longer see you. Soon they can no longer follow and look for a different leader. This is merely a metaphor, but it’s a good one. 

Often effective leaders have to restrain themselves so that they do not lose touch with their followers. For example, before World War II President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States realized that America would have to confront Nazi Germany at some point and began to try to persuade his constituents to do it sooner, when it was likely to be less costly in lives, than later. But the majority of the American people still hoped to avoid conflict and any loss of life. They refused to follow their leader.  FDR was too far ahead of them. He had to reverse course and promise that America would not be drawn into any foreign wars in order to be reelected. FDR had been right, of course, but being right didn’t protect him from the likely unfavorable consequences of getting too far ahead of his followers. Because leaders often have a better and broader vantage point than followers, leaders can often perceive the future and its risks or opportunities better than their followers – many commentators assert that this is what a leader is supposed to do. But followers can find it hard to accept a different future or to accept its dangers. A leader who gets too far out in front of them can be repudiated.  

The role of the leader is to get out in front of followers and to carefully bring followers to acceptance of the new realities facing them.


"Daniel Quinn Mills consults with major corporations and governments and lectures about management, leadership, strategy, economics and geopolitics.  He is an expert on the differences between Asian and Western leadership styles. His most recent article is “Asian and American Leadership Styles:  How They Differ,” published in the Peking University Business Review, August, 2007.  An American, Mills is also a member of the Innovation Council of Malaysia, a ministry level council chaired by the Prime Minister." (Harvard Business School)