Leaders can’t lead from the rear–by Jay Lorenzen

George C. Marshall had seen it too often.

In WWI, generals and their aides—far from the sound of guns and the dirty faces of their front-line troops—laid out maps and devised plans disconnected from reality. They ruled over the distant battlefield from comfortable chateaus, moving men and machines as if they were pieces on a chessboard. Peter Drucker, the famous management theorist, recalled asking one of his teachers, a WWI veteran, why so many men died in the Great War. Without hesitation, his instructor said: “Because not enough generals were killed; they stay way behind the lines and let others do the fighting and dying.”

Leaders can’t lead from the rear.

Years ago, I ran across the following lines from Stephen Vincent Benet’s poem, John Brown’s Body. I’ve never forgotten the picture it paints of flat maps and wooden blocks and bad leaders.

It’s a constant reminder that I cannot lead from a distance. If you take a flat map and move wooden blocks upon it strategically, The thing looks well; the blocks behave as they should. The science of war is moving live men like blocks.

And getting those blocks into place at a fixed moment. But it takes time to mold your men into blocks. And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush.

They are tired and rest; they straggle after ripe blackberries, and you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them. It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind, but the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow to move, when they start, they take too long on the way.

The general loses his stars, and the block-men die in unstrategic defiance of martial law, because they’re still used to just being men, not block parts.


The hallmark management books of the 1980s were ones like “In Search of Excellence, ” and “Passion for Excellence,” which highlighted “Management by Wandering Around [MBWA].” Leaders need to be out in the trenches, on the shop floor, at the job site, in customer service center, etc. to connect with staff and customers who are making things actual happen. They can’t plan and guide strategies without a “live pulse” of what taking place where the activities of the business or organization are actual occurring.

Where do you need to be in a role of MBWA? In a field office. Out on a customer call? In the break room? Or maybe even closer to home. In your child’s classroom, bedroom or on their i-Pad? You can’t lead effectively if your are absent.

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