When we think of leaders, an image that often comes to mind is of someone heroically leading the way. Of someone who is perhaps the strongest, fastest, or smartest member of a team – but certainly the person “in charge” — moving boldly forward while exhorting others to follow.

By their very nature, leaders tend to be visionary, high energy, and driven. Whether in a formal leadership position or leading informally among their peers, they want to get things done – and almost reflexively, they want to lead from the front.

And, hey, let’s be honest: It just plain feels good to roll up your sleeves, jump down into the trenches, and get to work doing things!

This tends to work really well when leading small teams. Especially teams of people who are all focused on similar or repetitive tasks.

But when leading diverse cross-functional or distributed teams, leading from the front is often the wrong approach. It can make it difficult to keep a team unified, to track and guide a team’s progress. And in the worst case, a hard-charging leader gets out ahead of their team and that team begins to lose momentum and fall behind.

Despite our habit of imagining leaders as setting the pace for others to follow, it turns out the best place from which to lead is often from the back – and if you’re a doer by nature and experience, that can be pretty disconcerting. Especially as a new or aspiring leader, a significant challenge you may face is making the transition from being a tactical and operational “doer” to being a strategic driver.

One of my clients, the founder and CEO of a multi-million dollar start-up and leader of its small team of roughly a dozen people, was reflexively leading her company from the front. She was first in, last out, and constantly running. She told me that at the end of a busy day – and they were all busy days… — she was exhausted, but just didn’t feel like she had accomplished much.

I suggested putting a twist on the question “What did I accomplish today?” and turning it into, “What did I help my team accomplish today?”

To answer that question, I recommend GAD-O, which stands for Guide, Advise, Direct, and Overwatch.

It’s a leadership tool I use to manage my time while encouraging trust, initiative, adaptability, and innovation to get the most out of a team.

As leaders, some of our primary responsibilities are to communicate a shared vision and set concrete, measurable, achievable goals – then get out of the way and keep your eye on the path out ahead.

Once we have articulated our  goals for our teams, we can provide our GAD. We can give guidance to our teams to suggest how they might go about achieving their goals; give advice to your teams to suggest how they should go about achieving those goals; and give direction to tell our team what they must do (or must not do) to achieve those goals.

By articulating concrete goals and providing clear GAD, we set the conditions to recognize and realize – literally to make real! – the unlimited potential and possibility our team members have to offer. This enables creation of strategies and solutions far greater than anything even the most experienced and inspired leaders can come up with on their own.

That done, we can move into a position of overwatch where, rather than leading from the front, we can lead from the back and observe the members of our team as they advance toward shared goals.

From that vantage point, and by making ourselves available to give help and permission, leaders are freed up to do two essential things. First, we can see when someone gets off track, tangled up, or encounters a road block, and then come forward to help them un-foul the lines or break down the barrier. Second, we are ready when  someone spots a new path that may work better, and update our GAD to help orient our team in a new direction.

Consider Fezzic the Giant in the movie “The Princess Bride.” When he saw Inigo Montoya throwing himself repeatedly but fruitlessly against a barred door, he stepped forward, knocked the door open, and stepped aside to let Inigo pass – then followed him through to be available when and where he was needed next.

By focusing his strength as a leader at the right place, the slow-moving Fezzic enabled Inigo to unleash the speed and skill that put the Six-Fingered Man at the tip of his sword.

At first, leading from overwatch can seem disconcerting, like we aren’t doing the things we imagine leaders should be doing — especially if we are used to being hands-on leaders at the front. But once we have communicated clear goals and provided sound GAD, we can step back into overwatch and make ourselves available to give our team members help and permission along the way.

From there, the answer to the question “What did I help my team accomplish today?” soon becomes a lengthy and satisfying list.

Cliff W. Gilmore

Cliff W. Gilmore

CEO at North of Center, LLC
Cliff holds a PhD in organization and management with a specialization in leadership. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he completed operational deployments to Fallujah, Iraq and Kandahar and Helmand, Afghanistan. He has led multi-national and inter-agency teams including approximately one year on loan from the Corps as Director of Policy, Planning, and Outreach for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. He also directly advised the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on public and media engagement regarding national security matters for two years as Special Assistant for Public Communication. Today he puts that experience to work helping people become the kind of leaders they would want to follow.
Cliff W. Gilmore
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