Leading the Front—from Behind
“I suppose, like most directors, I suppose what I really want to do is act”
—Mel Gibson accepting the Academy Award ® for Best Director in 1996 for ‘Braveheart’
This was indeed a light moment in a remarkably successful evening for all those associated with the making of a movie that also took home the Best Picture Award. The lesson in the quotation, however, may be that while we all want to be in front, we may have a greater responsibility to step back as we achieve more. This becomes an ever-stronger, growing desire as we become more accomplished in our careers through the various roles we have developed ourselves for. Indeed, an organization is formed when talented individuals come together to contribute their talents toward a common goal.
A motion picture director has many responsibilities, not the least of which is to fully and intimately communicate the story with which to the cast and crew, who together are being asked to create that vision for the world to see. Accuracy is essential to the director’s purpose; but so, too, is that individual’s responsibility to support the purpose and role of each and every other person—and their talents—involved in the project.
“…performing in a singular role, even if at a high level, should not be the pinnacle of our excellence.”
Being in front is understandable really. Each of us want to excel, and excellence in most roles of an organization is a demonstrative process. Filled with day-to-day and periodic scenarios where we are able to use our talents to further the company’s path of success, these talents are in the skills we have honed, techniques we have mastered and the methods we have employed with subtle but effective nuances for the particular situation we are in. But performing in a singular role, even if at a high level, should not be the pinnacle of our excellence. A key member of an organization becomes significantly more valuable and influential when she dedicates herself to sharing her insights and strategies so that others may be more successful. As an old saying has been rightly amended over time, “knowledge isn’t power; sharing knowledge is powerful”.
And so it becomes clearer as we advance in our career paths, that achieving a level of mastery in one discipline should be strong evidence of our responsibility to learn not only new skills, but to assist the organization more broadly and influence it more effectively by accepting those moments when we are asked to lead the team. Perhaps this is just as evident in the same motion picture industry, where we increasingly see actors transitioning from in-front-of-the-camera work to a position in which we are afforded a wider perspective as we help to bring the story of our team to the attention of those we seek to serve.
This is consistent with our own leaders in our organizations, too. For just as the director has often come from the much larger family of actors, our own leaders arise from successive advancements. And leaders, including the directors, are uniquely skilled at seeking, cultivating, harvesting and seeing the performances of their cast/team by pursuing the ideas of their members. Where a director can provide the emotion and tone of a particular scene, it is indeed the actor who develops those concepts into an artistic performance. Likewise, the police chief who communicates his vision for community-based policing, or the planning official who seeks new development that reunites neighborhoods, the same vision-to-concept-to-performance process occurs when they share their vision with their teams.
What I am suggesting is not that we walk away from the very essence of the work that we love, but rather, we find within ourselves the tools to help build bridges for those we lead to expand their own excellence and the value of their work; that we provide them with the scenes and settings for individual, team and organizational success, and in new forms and in new arenas. Unlike motion pictures or most television productions, our work is almost always its own form of live theater. For this reason, any temptations we may have about stepping back out ‘in front of the camera’ should be suppressed by the understanding of our new role to help those we lead to provide memorable performances.