Where should you lead from? The front? The back? Or the side? Answer: A Fourth Option

John Maeda
6 min readAug 2, 2022
Post-it illustration on Leadership by John Maeda

When leading where your teams are going, you also need to know whether they’re following.

—A Fourth Option for leaders to take

As a “maker” of things, I’ve never been a “leading from the front” kind of person and more of a “leading by example” one. But over time I learned that the unfortunate truth of using the latter approach is that it doesn’t work too well. That fact runs counter to the many heroic parables that we get taught when we’re kids. It’s true, though. Because maybe YOU fully understand the example you’re setting. But everyone else doesn’t. So where’s the leadership in all of that?

So you have three options:

  1. Lead from the front
  2. Lead from the back
  3. Lead from the side

Let’s break these down in detail.

Leading from the front wins you medals

“Follow me!”

If you’re taller, you’re more likely to be acknowledged as a leader — according to research from 2013. I think a simpler way to frame this concept is to imagine that you are amongst many tired, hungry cave dwellers looking for hope and the next meal. The person that’s the tallest in the group is going to literally stand out in the crowd and be more easily heard.

Research suggests that tall individuals have an advantage over short individuals in terms of status, prestige, and leadership, though it is not clear why. Applying an evolutionary psychology perspective, we predicted that taller individuals are seen as more leader-like because they are perceived as more dominant, healthy, and intelligent. —Group Processes & Intergroup Relationships 16(1)

When you’re leading from the front and telling folks to “Follow me!” it’s in your favor to be tall and have a loud voice. You’re easily visible and easily heard. On the other hand if you’re on the shorter side like myself, and to have a voice that was conditioned to “not…

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John Maeda

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Currently VP Design and A.I. at MSFT.