What leaders can learn from people on the front line

14 February 2022

A few minutes of listening can generate thousands of hours of results.

When passengers first took to travelling by rail, many felt uncomfortable being unable to speak directly to the driver who used to sit atop their previous mode of transportation – the Stagecoach. Some even refused to ride entirely and this was costing future-thinking railroad executives both their dreams and their investors fortunes.

In the old days the Stagecoach Driver was often a highly dangerous occupation. The term “your money or your life” may have been directed at the passengers of the frontier plains aimed down the barrel of a shotgun, but the driver wasn’t immune from such threats. In the old days, passengers looked to the Stagecoach Driver for reassurance, leadership and safety.

Knowing this, to alleviate this anxiety a handful of railway companies took staff members, dressed them as old-time stagecoach drivers and sat them exposed to the elements to help their customers feel more comfortable with their spitting, smoking and spluttering horseless carriage. Combined with a literal stagecoach mounted atop a railway axel it looked silly, it was a tad uncomfortable for the acting driver (who was liable to have their clothes set aflame by the embers of the engine), but this reassuring figure from the past helped increase revenue for the rail companies and brought dividends to happy investors.

Understandably though, the idea of employing a staff member to sit and do nothing but act as a reassuring symbol of the old days wasn’t easily accepted. There were bitter arguments against them. Model drivers added to the weight of the carriage inflating coal costs; they needed to be paid for their time and many rail executives saw them as an unnecessary expense given they did nothing but look pretty – when not on fire. “Damn the cowards, they can ride with us or sit behind a horse for hours on end” was the view by some.

When looking at the vision the railway executives had it’s obvious they saw the big picture – hundreds of thousands of people one day travelling by train across the country at the speed of a hundred horses. But for the people on the front line, the Ticketmaster’s and Porters who saw the present reality, they realised there were hundreds if not thousands of potential clientele too scared to realise this grand vision. The change necessary was massive to be sure, but the fears from customers were also magnified beyond reality. It was only when railway executives accepted they needed to amend their grand strategy, that it allowed for the populace to ride their marvelous chariots of travel en-masse.

Strong Leaders build a business, Visionary Leaders improve their industry:

How then does this tale apply to modern leadership? Well, when you look at modern business leaders there are usually three common themes: they are often experts in their field, their leadership is bolstered by the language they use and they know how to delegate well.

However, not all leaders are made equally. Some only look to the past and drag others reluctantly along with them like the leaders who demanded customers continue to travel by horse and buggy. Others focus on the present and get bogged down in the current problems of the day, like those who refused to change their railway plans. Whereas strong leaders look to the future to give instructions on how to achieve their aims, but fail to yield to the advice of others experts causing them costly mistakes. Not all of these leaders can achieve their goal, and too many often focus only on improving their business, rather than improving their industry.

That’s the difference. The leader who improves their industry, who thinks far beyond their stagecoach door, is what I call a Visionary Leader.

A Visionary Leader is one who listens to anyone respective of position or prestige and then amends their vision based upon what others share with them. A Visionary Leader is like the railway executive who despite seeing hundreds of benefits from using their railway, accepts others are like old stagecoach horses, blinkered and unwilling to change their route.

Modern Day problems sometimes require old-timey solutions:

Which of these three styles of leadership have you experienced?

Weak Leadership – Looking to the past: “Our product is struggling due to last quarter’s performance”.

Although this is a statement of fact, it offers no action statement, solution or explanation for the poor performance. There’s no future thinking here, only past reflection.

Average Leadership – Looking at the present: “We need to grow our product performance or else we will have another failure next quarter. Does anyone have any ideas?”.

This is once again a statement of fact, but despite it offering an action statement it offers no future goal, it also fails to outline what caused the failure. The lack of direction is disappointing, because although asking for advice is beneficial, a leader shouldn’t be asking others where they are going.

Strong Leadership – Setting a plan to follow and explaining the benefits of doing so: “We’ve learned from our past experiences. We are going change our marketing strategy to focus on Instagram, because our Twitter campaign taught us static images are no longer popular. With Instagram we’ll use ten-second videos, which will allow us monitor customer retention. This ensures our marketing department will be able to change our videos quickly, rather than waiting for the results of a static image campaign at the end of each week. Doing this will also allow us to quickly learn which products we need to focus on and which need to be further developed, saving large amounts of money marketing anything which isn’t popular. We can reinvest the funds from those dead marketing campaigns into product development to be finished by the end of our next quarter.”

This statement offers an action statement, a clear instruction and knowledge on how the campaign can be improved. It also shows they have a vision for future development, product investing and how they have considered various scenarios which rely upon the support of others. Still, there’s no request for input from others who may have excellent advice to share. Their plan could be destroyed by a single bad investment.

A Visionary Leader listens to the people on the front lines:

A Visionary Leader is liable to give similar instructions to that of the Strong Leader, but they will always ask for input from others whilst doing so, because a Visionary Leader knows their plan isn’t perfect. They know others know more than them. They know a grand vision can only be realised through the experience, input and power of those who see the finer details.

A Visionary Leader knows that leadership isn’t simply demanding others follow them or customers act as intended, instead it involves charming others to want to achieve a common goal through appealing to their values, their needs and delegating responsibilities to the right people to give customers what they want. It also involves being humble and willing to learn, to have empathy with people far below their industry status and the knowledge that great plans need great ideas – which can often come from people without great paychecks.

A Visionary Leader is the Railway Executive who happily approaches the young, fresh-faced Porter and asks to know his customers concerns. They are the leader who shakes hands with the coal-covered driver, foreman and boiler worker, who each dripping with sweat explain customers are shouting at them during the journey – and then rewards these staff handsomely for sharing so.

A Visionary Leader is the person who looks at their grand strategy and occasionally amends it to take a step back in time to add an old-fashioned, expensive, model driver to a driverless carriage to allay the fears of his customers – all with the knowledge that it’ll one day be phased out and pay out when their vision steams on by.