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Leading from the Front: Where are You in the Formation?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tracy Rickman, Ygnacio Flores and Don Mason
February 8, 2020

Defining leadership is elusive, though all can agree a leader is one who inspires, shapes, encourages and provides direction and insight to those around them. A leader can exist anywhere within an organization’s hierarchy. However, those that are in the front lines stand above administrators that manage routine tasks. Using the theme of leading from the front, we asked a few leaders known to have led in extreme, hostile and complex environments how they have reflected on leadership.

Genuine leadership is revealed during exigent circumstances. A notable event that tested leadership was the response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many people demonstrated significant leadership that day. Responding to the tragedy required swift and effective decisions to meet the goal of saving lives in buildings that were to collapse due to fire and structural damage. Many of those that led efforts to save lives have been called heroes. Chief Joseph Pfeifer, an on-duty Chief Officer from the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) who responded to the Twin Towers said that leading from the front is about, “Sharing the risk.” Sharing the risk requires a leader to know his or her people, the situation and the challenges faced. Leaders consider these factors to quickly formulate decisions and place into action the best options to meet immediate goals and objectives. Sharing risk uses the capabilities of the entire team to ensure the best results, as each person’s skills reinforce those of others on the team.

Another environment with complex challenges in a working environment is a theater of war. General David Petraeus, the former Commander of the Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US Central Command, as well as a former Director of the CIA, related, “It is hard to be a leader, in the rear of the formation.” Leaders need to be in front to be efficient and effective while they serve in their positions. Making decisions, especially difficult ones, is less effective when made without knowing what exists on the frontlines.

Those leading from the front have an innate ability to surmise a situation and provide guidance that maximizes the efforts of the team or organization. Leading from the front comes with risks that can expose a leader’s weaknesses. Leading from the front means a leader owns the consequences of his or her decisions. This means taking the blame when decisions are wrong and sharing in the successes of those being led. Exceptional leaders have a service minded premise and ensure that serving others is at the forefront of what they do. Good leaders inspire and are committed, compassionate and supportive. Leaders listen well and possess good communication skills.

Leading also requires a person to look beyond their own ego and encourage the development of future leaders. Tog Gang, National Program Manager at Search for Common Ground, who works in resolving multifaceted conflicts in Nigeria, sees “…Leading from the front as actually leading from the background in practice.” Gang concentrates on being the axle of a wheel that empowers others to make the change. This approach aligns with the development of future leaders by letting people take the lead while still having the support of the primary leader when challenges become difficult. This requires a leader to be in the front shaping and developing future leaders.

There is little doubt that leading from the front establishes a clear vision for the organization. Leading from the rear can be a sign of insufficient knowledge or skills to properly lead an organization. Not being aware of what is taking place in the vanguard of the organization enables others to manipulate the performance narrative and unduly influence the decisionmaking process as the ends, ways and means of the organization’s strategy is diverted from those of the organization’s mission, vision and goals. This can lead to people viewing the administrator as not caring or being engaged in the organization. There is a clear difference in a leader who develops leaders and stays engaged in the frontline operations and one that hides behind meetings, reports and the use of confidants to speak on the administrator’s behalf.

Administrators, as leaders, should seek opportunities to be in, “Front,” to serve their organizations. Leadership skills are not finite. The talents that make a good leader require constant refinement and modification depending on the challenges being addressed. Experienced leaders know that decisions are based on years of experiences. Leadership is formed through a cycle of trials, failures and successes. Administrators that fail to take the reins are what urban lexicon labels as Scomo—leaders that disappear when the going gets tough. Leading from the front serves as a whetstone for a leader’s skill sets, ensuring the leader is ready and prepared for the most demanding of situations.


A special thank you to General Petraeus, Chief Pfeifer and Mr. Gang for sharing their experience and insight with us.


Ygnacio “Nash” Flores
Tracy Rickman
Don Mason

All service as faculty in Rio Hondo College’s Public Safety Department.

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