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Vol. 4, No. 1
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102 

Want to Lead? – Then Get Out in Front

Extraordinary leaders do things that ordinary leaders won’t do, but extraordinary leaders are made, not born.

© 2005 William A. Cohen, PhD


General Patton once said an army is like a spaghetti noodle. You can’t push a spaghetti noodle; you’ve got to pull it.  When you’ve got a hard-nosed leader like Patton saying that you can’t simply lead by giving orders or making pronouncements, you know there is some great wisdom there. Yet some leaders, who ought to know better, don’t follow the great Patton’s advice.

What do they do? These leaders try to drive their employees to get various tasks done. They make no attempt to lead from the front.  Their attitude is that the grunt stuff is what the workers are getting paid for. Their job (they say) is something different. If the workers don’t like it they can go someplace else. There are plenty of others ready to take their place. 

It’s a miracle that any leader ever succeeds with this, but some do, at least for temporarily. However, if these leaders only mode is simply to decide what needs to be done and to give others orders from afar, their businesses will soon suffer.

It goes back to commitment. Under such conditions, the workers do the job only because they must.  If the job is so important, then why isn’t the leader out in front and participating? Those who you would like to follow your lead and adopt your attitude toward making your projects a success will only do so if you are out there in front, suffering along with everyone else.

A Lesson from Napoleon

Early in my career, a reading of history demonstrated this importance. Napoleon won battle after battle and eventually controlled much of the European continent even though he fought against the combined armies of the major powers of his age and usually against superior numbers. So much of a genius was he as a military commander, that finally defeated and exiled, he was secretly poisoned by his captors to remove any threat of his returning to power.

Here’s just one example of his leadership. On one occasion it was the rainy season and the roads were swamps of mud.  Riding along with his personal staff and some of his leading generals as they inspected the march toward an important rendezvous for an on-coming battle, he noted a handful of artillerymen trying to free a cannon that had become mired in the mud. They were delaying the rest of the French Army who merely halted, looked, and rested, apparently thinking that it was up to the artillerymen to free their own cannon.

Napoleon, however, didn’t delay for an instant. He halted his horse, dismounted and drew his saber. This he stuck point down in the mud saying it would only get in the way. He then put his own shoulder against the caisson, dirtying his uniform as he struggled with these common soldiers to free the cannon from the mud. His generals and staff officers immediately dismounted and followed their commander-in-chief’s lead.  In a few minutes they freed the cannon. Telling his artillerymen that their cannon was critical to the coming battle and wishing them luck, he re-mounted and continued with his previous inspection.

The French Army won battles against superior numbers because they knew it was their army, not Napoleon’s and that even their commander was not above getting out in front where the action was and doing common work for the common good of all in order to defeat his enemies.

Because of One Leader There Were One Tenth the Casualties

 If it weren’t for one leader pulling from out in front instead of pushing in the Gulf War, the casualties might have been ten times what they were. Yet, it was not the actions of a senior leader like General Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell, but rather, a relatively junior naval officer.

Lieutenant Commander Steve Senk, was on board the U.S.S. Tripoli when it struck an Iraqi mine. Seawater rushed in and mixed with volatile helicopter fuel from ruptured tanks stored below decks. The air was thick with highly flammable and toxic paint thinner fumes. The flame from a single match would have ignited this mixture and caused instant detonation. It probably would have incinerated all aboard. This included 1,375 marines who were being transported into action.     

The greatest danger was below decks where dangerous gases, both toxic and explosive, congregated. They had to be cleared, but no one was eager to enter that hellhole. Lieutenant Commander Senk did not order anyone into the increased danger. Instead, he got out in front and rushed below decks where he could immediately begin the hazardous work himself. Because he that’s where he went, others followed.

For four hours Senk personally led the efforts to decontaminate the space below decks. Though fatigued, he refused relief. Several times, he almost collapsed due to the fumes. In the end, he those who followed him succeeded in cleansing the area. The engines were re-started and the crippled ship reached port safely. Can you imagine what might have happened if Senk had tried to order his sailors to do this job from some place of relative safety, not up front?

Here’s what the U.S.S. Tripoli looked like when it got to port.




If business leaders could motivate their employees to perform at only a small fraction of the dedication of Commander Senk and his sailors, what couldn’t their organizations accomplish? I believe they can, if they get out in front. Employees don’t follow leaders who spend all their time behind a desk. They follow leaders who get out in front where they can see and be seen actively participating in the tasks that need to be accomplished. These are leaders who set the example. These are take-charge leaders who aren’t afraid to mix with the people actually doing the work and don’t  separate themselves into groups of “we” and “them.”

Successful Combat Commanders Always Get Out in Front

General Robert E. Lee exposed himself so frequently in the front lines of battle that his soldiers were terrified that he might be killed. They promised him victory if he would just go to a more protected area. They would take up the cry, “General Lee to the rear! General Lee to the rear!”

His opponent General Ulysses Grant also was in the company of his private soldiers as much as his generals. One wrote home that with Grant as their General-in-Chief, he was so much exposed to enemy fire that soldiers were ashamed to do less they be thought cowards.

Julius Caesar’s Leadership Secret

Perhaps because of Shakespeare’s immortal play, we tend to focus on the final hours in the life of Julius Caesar. We think of him primarily in his role as a politician and of his assassination. Yet, he was first and foremost a great military leader. That’s what brought him to the front rank in politics.

Julius Caesar had one trait that set him part from other successful Roman generals and emperors. It was not that he wasn’t a deep thinker. He was.  However, others like the “philosopher emperor” Marcus Aureilius, were even deeper thinkers. It was not that he wasn’t a good strategist or tactician, either. Again, he was, but there were other Roman generals who were at least as good. 

No, what set Caesar apart, was the fact that he spent an inordinate amount of time up front in the company of his soldiers. It was said that he committed not only the names of his officers, but the names of thousands of his legionnaires to memory. He greeted each and every one of them by name.

Because of this, Caesar’s troops knew they were not just numbers to him. They were important! Wherever the action was, and whatever happened, they knew he would be there with them to share in it with them. It was their legion as much as his.

There is no way of leading from the rear in combat, and there is no way of leading from the rear, in corporate life either. You have to be “up front” where the action is. That way you can see what’s going right and what’s going wrong. You can make critical decisions fast without those decisions having to work there way up and down the chain of command for approval. You can see your employees, and they can see you. There is no question in anyone’s mind as to what you want done, and the fact that you are there on the spot lets people know just how committed you are to getting them done. It lets them know that you think what they are doing is important. It lets all who would follow you know that you are ready, willing, and able to share in their hardships, problems, successes and failures in working towards every goal and completing every task. Moreover, going where the action is gives you an opportunity to set the example. Remember, to be a leader, you have to lead. To lead means to be out in front.

Why You Must Get Out In Front to Lead

There are leaders who feel they must maintain total detachment. They believe they must coolly and carefully analyze the facts and make a decision without being influenced by outside complications. From their viewpoint, this must be done away from the action, where the noise, pressures of time, and other problems distract from their ability to think calmly and clearly.       

There is a place for contemplative thinking and measured analysis in leadership. But many leaders have their priorities all wrong. The first priority is that the leader must get out where the action is; where those that are doing the actual work are making things happen. They cannot lead from behind a desk in an air-conditioned office.

John Keegan is a military historian. He has written many professional books on command and strategy. In his classic treatise on the essence of military leadership, The Mask of Command, he concluded, “The first and greatest imperative of command is to be present in person.”1

Women Also Lead from the Front

You hear a lot of talk nowadays that women must lead differently than men to be successful. In fact, some say that women lead differently than men, anyway. Maybe, but I doubt it. Everything I’ve seen demonstrates that women who lead well get the same results as men who lead well. Successful leaders of both sexes lead from the front.

Women Out in Front Lead in Battle and in Boardrooms

The Bible tells us that Deborah was a judge of Israel. Among her duties was military advisement. Called to advise the Hebrew General Barak in the Israelites war against the Canaanites of Jabon, Deborah suggested that Barak recruit 10,000 troops and invade Jabon. According to Judges 4:8-9, Barak was not entirely convinced. “If thou wilt go with me, then I will go; but if thou will not go with me, then I will not go.”

Deborah did go, and her presence up front inspired the Israelites to victory. She received full credit: “The people were oppressed in Israel, until you arose, Deborah, as the mother of Israel,” quotes the Holy Scriptures.

Almost two thousand years later, a young French girl was despondent because of the English invasion of her country during the Hundred Years War. We know her as Joan of Arc.

When she was 13, Joan began to hear voices which she identified as those of three saints. They gave her a mission: liberate France from English domination. For five years she was uncertain and did nothing. Then she went to her monarch, Charles VII, and boldly asked for command of the French army.

“Not likely,” you may think. Not only was Joan a young woman, but she had no military experience at all. St. Cyr, the famous French military academy did not exist in Joan’s age. But it would have made no difference. St. Cyr still doesn’t admit women as cadets. Joan’s king gave her the command she desired anyway. He was that desperate. He had tried everything else. The situation was so bad; that even the king’s counselors agreed Joan might be their only chance.

Prior to Joan’s appointment as French commander, the English siege of Orleans had lasted eight months despite the best efforts of the French army to relieve it. Joan lifted the siege in just eight days. Her orders to her soldiers before attacking were simple: “Go boldly in among the English.” But she didn’t just give orders. She got out in front. “I go boldly in myself,” she told the chroniclers of her age.

Joan personally hated fighting and killing. Though she commanded the French army, and gave the orders, she did not struggle in hand-to-hand combat. Mounted on a horse, she carried a huge banner. Everyone could easily identify her. Then she rode with these colors and her staff to the place on the battlefield where the situation was most critical. Usually, that’s where most of the action was and where the danger was the greatest. The French soldiers saw that their commander was out in front; so that’s where they went, too.






Being out in front is not just for show. In Joan’s case, it led to her capture while attempting to relieve Compiegne a year later. Her captors executed her as a witch. They thought that for any leader to be so successful, much less a young girl with no military training, she had to have demonic power. She had special power all right. But more likely it was the power due to her getting out in front with her troops.

There are modern Joan’s in the boardroom as well, as the battlefield, who get out in front today. Beth Pritchard was the chief executive of the nation’s leading bath-shop chain, Bath & Body Works. Pritchard got out in front and demonstrated a special power, too. In addition to her corporate duties and responsibilities, she spent two days a month working “in the trenches,” in a Bath & Body Works boutique. She didn’t sit around observing or spend all her time handing out advice to employees either. She saw and was seen; she taught and she learned. She helped set up displays, stocks shelves, and arranged gift baskets. She even spent time on the cash register, something she claimed she wasn’t very good at.

Whether she was good on the cash register or not seems not to have mattered. The power of getting out in front paid off. Her cash registers were full. When she took over Bath & Body Works in 1991, it had 95 stores and sales of $20 million. Five years later, the number of stores had increased to a whopping 750, and sales hit $753 million. 2 When she left the company two years ago, there were 1700 stores.  Leading from the front works!

How To Get Out In Front

If you want to be an up-front leader, here are three things you can do:

·        Go and Be Where the Action Is

·        Set the Example — Don’t Just Tell Others What Needs to Be Done —- Demonstrate by Sharing the Pain and Participating Yourself

·        Be Willing To Do Anything You Ask Others To Do; and Every Now and Then, Do It!


1 Keegan, John The Mask of Command (New York: Penquin Books, 1988) p. 329.

2 Bongiorno, Lor, “’The McDonald’s of Toiletries,’” Business Week, (August 4, 1997). Pp.79-80.



Published by AMACOM last month, SECRETS OF SPECIAL OPS LEADERSHIP: DARE THE IMPOSSIBLE – ACHIEVE THE EXTRAORDINARY represents my recent massive study into special operations leadership techniques — not just one special ops organization, and not just U.S. special ops, but foreign as well. So there are techniques gleamed from U.S. Special Forces, Delta Force, SEALS, Marine Recon, Air Commandos, Rangers, SAS, Israeli Sayeret Makal and more going back not just to World War II, but through 7000 years of warfare. This is NOT a “business is war” book, but you will learn how to apply these eye opening concepts directly to business and other organizations.

Frances Hesselbein, former President of the Girl Scouts of America, Chairperson of the Leader to Leader Institute said:

“Leaders in all three sectors will find inspiration in the fourteen strategies this remarkable new leadership resource provides. It’s not about theory. but stirring lessons from leaders in action in every chapter.”

Former Ranger Brace Barber, author of No Excuse Leadership said:

Immediately engaging. Immediately useful. Invaluable insights for business leaders who want to gain a competitive advantage by taking ordinary resources and using them extraordinarily.”

Available now online or at your local bookstore.

Also, I’m happy to announce my new seminar, not yet described elsewhere on this web site. Its name says it all: “Dare the Impossible; Achieve the Extraordinary: 14 Special Ops Leadership Practices That Really Matter in Your Organization.” Contact me about my speaking to your organization at or (626) 791-8973.


“General Patton demonstrated his point with a china plate and a wet noodle. Holding the plate almost perpendicular, he attempted to push the wet noodle up the slippery, slick surface. His effort was not successful.” 

General Omar N. Bradley