Front-line leadership, Part II

Talk of front-line leadership is something we hear all the time lately, but what does it really mean? We think these four principles provide a solid foundation for those who aspire to lead from the front.


Last month, In part one of this series on front-line leadership, we looked at the example of 1st Lieutenant Richard “Dick” Winters and his leadership of Easy Co of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division following their D-Day jump into Normandy.  Thrust into the command of Easy Co following the loss of their ranking CO, Winters quickly distinguished himself as both a soldier and leader, so much so he not only rose quickly in rank and responsibility but garnered the lasting respect and admiration of the men who served under him.  Decades later they still speak glowingly of his abilities as a soldier and leader.

We chose the story of Lt Winters as an example of front-line leadership because he so exemplified the traits we believe demonstrate it. 

Make an example of yourself

“He went right in there and he didn’t… he never thought of not being first, or sending somebody in his place.  I don’t know how he survived.  But he did.”

-       Member of Easy Co, about Dick Winters

“Lead from the front.  Say, “Follow me” and then lead the way”

-       From Maj Dick Winters “10 Principles of Leadership”

It’s true the experience of combat is very different from most civilian endeavors, including most day-to-day policing, and leading under the threat of near constant enemy fire is unique and not easily translated to the civilian world.  On the other hand, that those examples of such front-line leadership are exhibited by mere kids all the time in combat should serve as an inspiration in the civilian world.  The pretenders to true leadership – those who talk the talk but have never taken the walk – will be exposed, and maybe nowhere faster than in a police organization. 

Police supervisors who constantly cajole subordinates to do more, produce more, be more proactive, or work harder with less better have been a hard charger in their own right when they were line officers or their hypocrisy will be known.   If a boss or officer is going to lead an assignment or project they had best have some skill or knowledge germane to the task, or be willing to go the extra mile to obtain it, or anyone assigned to follow is going to naturally question their ability and qualifications to lead. 

The reality is, of course, you might find yourself supervising a unit, or tasked with a leadership assignment, far outside your area of expertise.  Perhaps you made detective after only a couple years in patrol and now, eighteen years later, you’ve made sergeant and find yourself pushing a squad around on a midnight shift supervising a crew of veteran patrol coppers who were mostly in junior high school when you started the academy.  Or your boss pulled you into his office and laid out a problem in need of a solution… and your job is to figure out the solution and fix the problem.  You have a team of colleagues to help you, but no rank over them and no greater experience than any of them, but they temporarily answer to you.  Good luck and have at it!  Could either scenario pose a problem?

Sometimes doing the opposite of what seems to be our natural inclination – hiding weakness and faking competence - and admitting your own uncertainty or inexperience, and then demonstrating how you’ll overcome them, is the key to gaining trust as a leader. 

Know those you hope to lead

“A leader has to understand the people that are under him, understand their… their needs, their desires… how they think a little bit…”

-       Major Richard “Dick” Winters

Notice here we say “hope to” lead.  That is deliberate and real; because you have leadership responsibilities, either through rank or assignment or both, does not make you a leader.  A manager, maybe?  Possibly someone who’ll receive at least a modicum of respect for the rank or assignment by those you hope to lead, out of a respect for the hierarchy, or a desire to avoid headaches or to fly under the radar.  But are you really leading?

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