Lead from the Front—Don't Boss from the Back

In the dojo, the leader goes first.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Remove all the business and management school overthinking, what separates leaders from bosses is this: Leaders lead from the front, bosses boss from the back. Before working for a Fortune 100 company or running my own business, I learned the principles of leadership while teaching kids' martial art classes. There are two approaches you can take: you can tell them what to do, or you can show them what to do. Both are ways of doing things, but not all ways are equally good.

The power dynamics among kids and adults (and even animals) are the same. Every pack needs a leader, and if you can't lead, you will be devoured. If you are weak, you will be devoured. If you talk and can't do, you will be devoured. Both leaders and bosses influence the actions of others, but how they choose to go about their influence is what distinguishes them. Leaders give you something to follow, bosses give you orders to follow.

Do as I Say vs. Do as I Do

I have heard many parents lament over their children's inconsistent martial arts practice. But often, these same parents are themselves inactive and their concern is their children will follow what they've been shown by the parents. This is the rub, children naturally learn by imitating, yet here we want children not to follow their parents, but to create a habit out of thin air—because we told them to. Rather than following the examples of their immediate authority figures, they are instructed to follow the authority figures' orders instead. Thus, the parents become bosses. And in most cases, nature wins—children follow the behaviors of their parents rather than listening to their orders. This is what many parents did themselves as kids, stop some practice they regret stopping later. Most parents who push their kids the hardest in an activity are the same ones who want their children to finish what they, the parents, started. For these parents to change the outcomes for their children, they must break the cycle in themselves. They must show they can undo past mistakes.

Parents tell me how they were "sent" to karate, then they dropped out. They don't know why they dropped out; however, they don't want their kids to do the same. Think about that because the answer is in what they said. "Sent" to your room, "sent" to detention, "sent" to boarding school, and worst of all is when we are "sent" away. When kids are "sent" somewhere, somewhere the parents themselves do not go, it becomes punishment. When we gain weight, we "send" ourselves to the gym. And what do we do? Talk about food as reward and exercise as punishment—and cycle between the two, all the while hating ourselves. When we stop exercising, we aren't avoiding the gym, we're avoiding punishment.

"Sent" is also a disconnection; it's being pushed away from the person we wish to follow. A leader clearly demonstrates and sets a path, making it easy for others to follow. Give them something to follow. Lead from the front—don't boss from the back.

Serial entrepreneur and speaker Derek Sivers gave a now famous explanation of leadership. He begins with a video of a lone dancer at an outdoor concert:

Now comes the first follower with a crucial role: he publicly shows everyone how to follow. Notice the leader embraces him as an equal, so it’s not about the leader anymore—it’s about them, plural. Notice he’s calling to his friends to join in. It takes guts to be a first follower! You stand out and brave ridicule yourself. Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire... The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow.

Do It First, Then Do It Together

How do you get someone to do something you will not? Or in the example of martial art parents, how do you encourage without having courage in yourself? You don't. (Not well, anyway.) No amount of intellectual knowledge will satisfy the need for shared experience. There are many tasks a leader neither has the time nor knowledge to do, let alone would the task be best served in his or her hands. Imagine how badly things would go if the general were on the front lines. But knowing the leader has done it, does it on occasion, or is willing to try (shared experience) makes all the difference. So if it comes down to it, a respected general will hold his weapon and fight. You're confident of that. We love leaders and despise bosses because they don't have our backs. And when we lose confidence in our leaders is when they become our bosses. (In politics, a boss is called a dictator.)

In the dojo, the leader goes first. Follow that example, put your skin in the game. If a parent takes martial arts classes, or, if nothing else, has their own physical fitness practice, the child is more likely to stay engaged in the activity. It doesn't have to be the same thing your child (or your subordinate does), so long as it is same in spirit—that you share the same spirit of enthusiasm. Everyone, including a child, understands principles and this is a matter of principle, that we are in this together. If a parent is sedentary, don't expect the child to be any different. If no one in the house reads, why expect different from the child? We follow what we know. If the founder of a company (or even a dojo) is a lout, he or she will breed more louts. You create what you are. You'll lead or boss others who are just like you. We naturally hate hypocrites. The best way to preach is to set the example.

Like some parents, some leaders are not comfortable playing on the same level playing field as their subordinates, to meet them eye to eye. They would rather look down at them than sit where they are. But why do so many parents have bad backs? Because rather than sitting on the floor with their children, they bend over and loom over them. Yes, being on the same level takes some effort, but the results are worth it.

Legendary King Arthur sat with his knights around a round table so that everyone could be on the same level. This is what made him a great leader. If we do not set this example and meet people where they are, we leave many important aspects of culture and development to chance—to default to whatever is most convenient and comfortable. As that is what we are showing them. And left to chance, a utopia doesn't rise (read Lord of the Flies), it's usually the opposite—anger and resentment.

In a position of authority, you want people underneath you to be groomed to handle most situations without having to be continuously managed. This is not only easier for you, but it's also easier on them. You want them to be autonomous and adaptable. Rather than your one mind, you want a collection of minds actively problem solving. For that to happen, you must set the example and not just the expectations. In the dojo, the teacher must be egalitarian. The techniques should be libertarian. The culture should be socialistic. This is the balancing act of any sound leadership.

Being Genuine and Authentic

Bosses are annoying. They tell you to do things they are unwilling to do. They may think: "Why should I? I'm the boss." Why wouldn't this annoy you? So why do this to others? We only do it because we think we can. This causes a ripple effect of poor productivity, toxic culture, and inefficiency. For example, if you are a manager who constantly has to tell your employees everything they have to do, you will end up with an ineffective workforce you can't get rid of (because every employee will become like them). But if you show them the work and end up doing most of it, it becomes clear who you have to fire.

If all the ideas are yours, your company (or team) has a poverty of ideas. The best ideas should have to compete to rise to the the top. As a leader, you don't always have to lead or come up with all the ideas—that would make you the single point of failure. Be bold enough to encourage others to run with their ideas because a secure leader knows how to follow another's lead and support them so that the whole team can succeed.

Bosses are their own worst bottleneck. Everything starts and stops with them. A boss will keep incompetent workers employed for longer, and rather than taking steps to improve their performance, they may give them a raise—leaving the good employees to be poached by other companies. Because to a boss, the differences between good and bad employees are not apparent. Leaders know their teams from top to bottom. From a boss's 30,000-foot view, every employee looks the same—only those who suck up stand out. To leaders, the differences in merit are visceral.


A leader is the person who consistently takes the lead. There are times when the real leaders are not the heads of companies, and when these real leaders leave, many of the employees leave with them. I've seen assistant martial arts instructors leave with 90% of the students, much to the surprise of the owner. Bosses gets devoured.

What this boils down to is respect. (What leadership is really about.) But respect is earned, it can't be taken or demanded. Bosses, in the absence of respect, will demand fear and everyone will hate them for it (and they will plot against them). Bosses then get paranoid, demand more fear, which leads to an infinite fear-hate loop.

Leaders will repeatedly demonstrate why they should be respected and respect others as fellow travelers on the same journey. Leaders are our teachers, and for our part, we learn from them and follow their instructions. However, leaders must always improve their skills and expand their knowledge to keep leading. If leaders never try anything new, how will they get others to innovate? Adapt their roles? Take on new tasks? Creating actions from cipher is a tall order, but mimicry is at the very heart of our DNA.

Entrepreneurs often know every job function of their business—since they did the job first, they set the expectations. This creates the eventual work culture. It starts from the top down. In a game or new activity, my friends and I would flip a coin, and the loser had to go first. A school presentation? Loser goes first. But in leadership, where you are not only the chief executive but also the team life coach, the leader should go first. Don't just talk the part, but lead the part.

(A performance by the Tagou Martial Arts School | Reuters)

(A performance by the Tagou Martial Arts School | Reuters)

People crave human connection. (Not to be told or sent off.) It is not about the particular task; it is about the relationship that builds from having done the same task. It is not that you had to, it is that as a leader, you voluntarily chose to understand the journey of others. Creating connections and having empathy through experience. You give your team a reason to work, to work with you, and not for you. Working for you feeds your ego, but working with you gets more done. Like King Arthur and the round table, leadership through shared experience and mutual respect creates trust. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable gives people faith in you. And when your team believes in you, they won't work for you for your money, they will work for you because they believe what you believe. This is when you have people who will walk with you through gates of fire.

King Arthur did not fear losing his power by mingling with the lower ranks, rather, he feared what would happen if he did not. In Bruce Lee's translation of the Tao Te Ching, Lee writes:

The rivers and seas are lords of a hundred valleys. This is because their strength is in lowliness; they are kings of them all. So it is that the perfect master wishing to lead them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, he follows. Thus, though he is above them, men do not feel him to be an injury.

This is a timeless metaphor for perfect leadership.

Do Not Force What Comes Natural

Follow others if that is what it takes to keep the ball rolling. The leader's job is not to hold the ball but to keep the ball in play. Pass and delegate. Be a leader, not a control freak. Put yourself out there. Clear a path. That's what a leader's supposed to do. Don't preach, set the example. Be willing to learn, be willing to be taught. Show others you can embrace discomfort. Bosses are loud but leaders know when to be silent.

My favorite way of teaching kids is to have them teach me. In teaching, they get to know the material better, and I get to see their strengths and weaknesses. When I take on the role of the student, I show them that there is joy in learning. They feel comfortable enough to put their guards down and engage their critical thinking while I get to see things from their perspective, stretching my own beginner's mind. It works better and with more conviction if they actively participate rather than learn under duress. When forced, the natural tendency is to defy and assert their free will to do the opposite. Teaching and being taught allows me to learn twice.

Don't fear losing your authority. Humans are cooperative pack animals. You don't have to force us, we naturally want to follow. Put yourself out there, connect, and relate. Don't boss, go out there and do.

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