Well-known author and speaker, Dr. Steven Covey once said this of leadership:
“What a leader does has far greater impact than what they say.”
Covey inspired generations of leaders over the decades to step up and focus on the timeless principles of fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity in their work. Through Covey’s work, countless leaders, to this day, have made such a difference in their organizations by putting these principles into action with regularity.
As well, Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous speech ‘The Man in the Arena’ carries deep significance for leaders. Especially his emphasis on ‘credit belonging to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood.’ Roosevelt’s words have never rung truer when it comes to the necessity for leaders to lead from the trenches, not just from inside the walls of their offices.
The heroic Florence Nightingale was a perfect example of leading from the trenches as evidenced by her endless devotion to laying the foundation of professional nursing with the establishment of her school of nursing at St. Thomas Hospital in London. Prior to establishing her school, Nightingale gave up her life as a rich aristocrat to follow her calling to become a nurse.
At 33 years of age, she shot to prominence by serving as a manager and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War (1853-1856). Her work in the trenches significantly reduced deaths by improving hygiene and living standards for the soldiers and health care workers during the war.
During the height of the Crimean War, she wrote a letter to then Former British Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert, regarding the state of health care in the battle field. Her letter was a response to a letter that Herbert had written to the public about how the British government was managing the military and the health care of its soldiers.
Nightingale had disagreed with many things written in Herbert’s letter as he had not spent any time at all in the battlefield assessing the true needs of the soldiers. In her letter, she stated that ‘Herbert’s letter was written from his Belgrave Square war office, yet she was writing hers from a hut in the middle of the Crimean War and that the point of site is very different.’
So simple yet profound. How could Sidney Herbert know anything about the actual state of current affairs during the Crimean War as he had tucked himself away in the safety of his wartime office. His point of site was vastly different.
Fast forward 175 years later, her emphasis on ‘point of site being very different’ is hugely applicable to modern-day leadership. Leading from the front requires jumping into the trenches and working alongside those who are being led. That is the most powerful form of learning for leaders, yet many leaders still lead from inside the walls of their offices.
There is no doubt that leading from the front is not always possible and can also be very time-consuming. However, it remains a necessity for leaders to place themselves in the trenches to better understand the realities of the workplace and the challenges faced by employees. And as Covey says, 'the most powerful tool for a leader is their own personal example'.
For any leader reading this, if you were to honestly reflect on your own leadership, to what extent are you leading from the front?
To what extent are you getting your hands dirty so to speak, doing the hard work in the trenches, and carrying this learning back with you into your leadership role?
To what extent is your personal example the biggest asset you possess?
And lastly, to what extent are you doing your best to better understand all points of site?
If you are already leading from the front, awesome! Keep doing whatever you are doing. Upon reflection, if you realize you need to do better, it's never too late. Change your point of site, get in there, and do some great work alongside those who you lead.
Thanks for reading.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.