What to do when leading from the front gets lonely
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide
A group of people and horses walk together on a green meadow.

It’s a common saying that it’s lonely at the top.

I experienced that loneliness, though in an unexpected way, during my day out with my Co-Active Leadership tribe and Jude Jennison’s five horses Callie, Tiffin, Jack, Admiral, and Mr. Blue. 

Co-active leaders don’t lead from the top

They lead from the front, and it can get lonely there too!

In Co-Active terms, leading from the front means leading with a vision, inviting others to embrace that vision and to moving towards it together, rather than demanding or settling for compliance.

But vision does not make a Co-Active leader. A leader from the front must also be connected to their leader within. That means they connect to a compelling purpose which anchors their vision. It also means that they embody their core values through their behaviour and choices, be that fairness or peak performance.  What matters is that their values speak through their actions rather than through the company vision statement. People want to follow a leader who offers a compelling vision, who they trust acts in alignment with their words. 

What it needs to get others to follow

Yet vision, purpose and values and the ability to lead from the front (not the top) aren’t enough on their own to get people to follow them. Precisely because the leader from the front doesn’t coerce people into following, she needs to hone her skills of alignment and enrolment.

In fact, even leaders in a hierarchy need those skills, because metrics and performance reviews don’t naturally generate commitment. And without commitment, people always find loopholes. Not once have I had a role where my boss would be able to say exactly how I was spending my workday. I delivered what I was asked to deliver, and the rest of my time I delivered what I thought was the more important work. (You’re absolutely right, I was not a dream employee, but in my defence, people liked the programmes and services I used to develop, sometimes under the radar, and they still run those programmes, years after I’ve left. 😉) And as a leader of others I also had trust that others would do what we had agreed on, which was sometimes easy and sometimes not, as many leaders in matrix organisations can attest to. 

Leading is not actually that easy, but nor is following! 

Back to our day with the horses. For a while, we experimented with leading and being led from the front as we were walking together with the horses in an open field. One of us took the lead, and her assignment was to lead the whole group, including the horses, to whatever destination she chose. Neither us nor the horses HAD to follow. No one was on a leash, except the lead horse, and that leash was very long and loose, nothing to force her into anything she wasn’t going to do anyway.

So how do you lead horses who have their own minds – and for that matter people who are equally afflicted with minds of their own? What I’ve already learnt during a few horse riding lessons in the past is that to ride a horse, you must be clear, intentional and determined about your destination. And that was the brief for our leader this day as well. Our leader was both these things. So far, so good.

Disorientation settled in almost immediately 

My position was right behind our leader. She started walking after a brief: “Are you ready?” After a resounding “Yes!” we marched on. We thought we were ready. Yet it turned out quickly that we weren’t. As I was walking right behind our leader, the bulk of the others walked behind me and out of eyesight.

Experience number 1: That was a disorienting position to be in. And quite obviously so it was for our leader who kept asking me over her shoulder: “Is everyone coming?” while trying not to move her focus away from the destination.

And I wanted to reassure her, so I said “Yes”, but in truth I had no idea. That’s when I felt the loneliness of being entirely without awareness, feedback, and communication. And I wasn’t even leading! But I didn’t know any more than she whether the others were following. Alas, no one voluntarily reassured me from behind, and so I did exactly what my leader did. I just shouted to the back: 

“Are you still with us?” 

I did that without turning around so as not to get distracted from the front (my job!). I tried to reassure my leader in the front whose voice sounded like her confidence was taking a hit from not knowing. All the while my own confidence was also shaken.

Sounds familiar?

No matter how your organisation is organised, if there isn’t good communication throughout, it will be lonely not just at the very top, but also in the middle. Everyone then feels lost, lacks direction and in the end purpose.

But most of the time, if you’re like most people, you ignore that feeling of uncertainty as best you can. You keep ploughing on with a focus on the task, until that’s not possible any more, because it becomes blatantly obvious that everyone’s endeavours are disparate and lead nowhere near the destination you had envisioned. But horses don’t wait for that to happen. They just hold the mirror up to you and simply don’t follow if the essentials aren’t there. And what are the essentials? 

You need to focus on relationship first. You must make sure that you and your people are aligned on the Why, the How and the What, and you have to enrol them in your vision so that you know that they are fully focused on the goal, with their hearts as well as their minds. 

How we finally got moving with our leader

On the fourth attempt, and with our second leader, we finally managed to move along with confidence. The four unleashed horses decided to join our trek in the end. We all moved together. It seems like the horses suddenly noticed that we were following our leader and where we were heading to, and our energy drew them in. How did that happen? What helped us recover after three frustrating failures? 

Here’s what I saw happening:

  1. Our leader took a step back from the task and connected to us, as people.
  2. We all connected to each other and the group as a whole. In short, we came back to our relationship before setting out for the last time.
  3. We made a circle, looked at each other and reminded ourselves of our purpose. This day was about our personal growth. It wasn’t about the horses. Nor about nailing an exercise. Our destination was to create a learning experience together that would allow each of us new insights and learning opportunities, and we were already doing that. We’d been doing that all day long.

Don’t let a task lead you – you are the leader

Our leaders were given a clear assignment. And they fell into the trap of focusing on the task. Have you experienced that? You are told to do something, and you are so focused on delivering that you forget that you actually can take your time to plan and reflect, to let the vision come alive and to enrol others. That happens in leadership workshops all of the time, no matter how great the individual leaders or the teams are. 

But more significantly, it also happens in the office. Our world turns fast. Your Board, your CEO or your manager might expect you to pivot with the speed of light and to deliver results by yesterday, and so you forget to start with the beginning.  But when you slow down at the beginning, you do get to the destination faster.

Never forget connecting to your vision, purpose and values, and always start with enroling those you need to influence to make it come true.

I learnt that the easy way. Horses communicate so clearly.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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