Are You a Frontline Leader?


This Statue of General George McClellan  stands outside of City Hall

This Statue of General George McClellan stands outside of City Hall

In Philadelphia we have tried to implement a new approach of service-centered leadership.

Service-Centered Leadership

Through our work with PhillyRising, we have learned that no matter what decisions are made in the office, the most important work we can do is to roll up our sleeves and get to work with our city’s community heroes. Mayor Nutter has been a great example of this: plowing snow for the elderly, helping paint the PhillyRising mural in Swampoodle or helping to clean-up brush at Mount Moriah cemetery. Mayor Nutter knows that leaders are never above their team—that leaders will be defined by their actions and not just his or her words—and that leaders who serve side-by-side with their direct reports, their staff and the larger community are better equipped to accomplish worthwhile goals.

Leading from the Front

Leading from the front falls under the umbrella of service-centered leadership, one of the most important and effective leadership approaches.

This concept is illustrated in the video below which describes a story I highlighted at the first annual PhillyRising Conference. It is about a drug dealer I met on Ella Street who was “upset” that our Saturday neighborhood clean-up was hurting her business. The woman—frustrated, defiant—blatantly voiced her concerns with me because our presence made her send “workers” home for the day. She even berated the narcotics officers for arresting a few of her drug dealers who were dealing in broad daylight during a City-sponsored event. We would have not seen first-hand how oppressive the drug problem was there without spending a prolonged period of time in the community.

The woman thought she was in charge of that community. It is this toxic culture—spreading to and deteriorating everything it touches—that can plague a neighborhood. The biggest problem with this is, while it is acknowledged and spoken about in strategy sessions, while you can pass by and see its effects,  its severity cannot be fully comprehended until it is witnessed through real, prolonged service in that community. I couldn’t have understood just how defiant, how powerful this women’s presence was until I met her—and once I met her, I could begin to appropriately plan to solve the problem.

This is one of the advantages of leading from the front—serving alongside of frontline employees and experiencing firsthand what your organization is fighting for. This past week, narcotics officers raided her operations, confiscating both guns and drugs, and that woman is now behind bars. Her arrest is an important example of the results that can come from service-centered leadership.

Other Benefits

Being present on the frontline gives leaders a better understanding of the challenges on the ground. However, there are other benefits to service-centered leadership.

Leadership can be exhausting. One of the benefits to this leadership approach is the energy you and your team gain from service. When you step out of the office (or conference room) and step into the community with your constituents, you are immediately reminded of what you’re fighting for. You and your team step away from the strategy sessions and find yourselves in the midst of the actual problem; this re-energizes you all, giving you concrete examples of your core mission, goals and priorities.

Another benefit is that you gain great ideas. Far too often, government takes a a top-down approach to problems—but this is not a sustainable method. In service, you hear ideas from constituents and community members who know the situation best. Often times, these people come up with ideas that were never mentioned in strategy sessions. Their ideas are scalable (and brilliant) and they would have never been discovered without serving on the front lines.

My point is this: service-centered leadership is an invaluable tool. Substantively, it gives the leader a genuine understanding of frontline problems. It also communicates authentic support at the highest levels. With this support, small efforts are energized, gaining momentum, feeling like they can tackle big problems. When leaders work side-by-side with community members, sharing responsibility for neighborhood problems, collaborating on solutions—everyone feels empowered and everyone gets results.

See you at the next clean-up.

Rich headshot 1

Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.



6 thoughts on “Are You a Frontline Leader?

  1. Mr Negrin, I’ve watched you when ever I was around or our paths crossed and you seem to impress me, not everyone does that. Why, I can’t really put my finger on it but it just doesn’t happen a lot. I watch how you interact with my current boss Adel. it seems pretty smooth for the most part. I don’t think it has always been that way with the City’s other CIO’s MDO’s. Some had good ideas of what it took to get IT needs done in the City and others just worked in the industry for a very long time. Seven years ago I came from the private sector to the City. The changes and adjustments took a awhile but slowly it happened. The one thing that never changed was my determination and hard-work. something instilled in the four of us from both our parents. Two retired City workers from the old PGH days and when the convention center was located over on Civic Center Blvd, across the street from CHOP.
    I attended the All HANDS meeting yesterday, I was very pleased to see some of the folks and staff getting their chance to make a difference in the City’s IT environments , it wasn’t always that way prior to you or Adel. That’s a positive improvement. Something that actually makes you proud to be a City Employee. I’ve been a consultant and exempt employee now with the City. It’s great to see that Philly is either catching up with the bigger cities technology wise or has closed that gigantic GAP that once looked like a cavern. We still have a long way to go and I know its going to more hard work and WORKERS. This might sound corny but good work. As a city resident and employee its good to see progress.

    • My pleasure. I know it sounds corny but It is truly an honor to serve. Thank you for the thoughtful words and the time you spent to comment. And a special thanks for your service. You guys are just getting started. Can’t wait to see what we accomplish together.

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