Leading Side by Side: A Modern Approach to Leadership in Changing Times



Change, whether happening to an individual or within a company, can be difficult. Yet, to grow and evolve as people, and as an organization, change is necessary. And, given that change is constant, how we adapt and lead in periods of uncertainty will determine our success or failure. 


Reflecting on my career, I realize that I’ve always been most energized when dealing with ambiguity, attempting to create clarity and a path forward in the face of uncertainty. When I decided to return to Reynolds American, I did so because of the exceptional people who worked there and the unique opportunity to help shape the future of a company going through a massive transformation. This was, in my estimation, the type of opportunity business school cases would one day be written about. Could a business that has been in operation for more than a century transform to lead it into the future? I believed it could and I wanted to be a part of that journey.


Over the past few years, I have learned a lot about myself as a leader and more importantly about the leader I need to be in a world of rapidly changing context. Transformation, for all its promise, is a thorny journey that requires leaders to guide teams through the bumps and bruises they encounter along the way. This reality challenges many of the old school beliefs about the role of a leader, and equally, the role of employees. While leaders play a vital role, they will only be effective in achieving sustainable outcomes if employees are empowered to act as change agents and co-pilots in driving the business. This has been a defining realization for how I choose to lead.


Most employees are highly capable change agents when they 1) understand “why” the change is occurring, 2) are empowered to drive change within their teams and departments, and 3) take ownership of the required changes, not distancing themselves from the mission at hand. When these conditions exist, organizational magic is unleashed. Companies tap into their workforce’s creativity, energy, and expertise, resulting in a more agile and resilient culture.


So, how do leaders contribute to creating these conditions? I am sure many of you have read books on effective leadership, as have I. And while some fundamentals remain true, we are in an era of rapid change in which traditional leadership beliefs and hierarchies, many of which are rooted in command- and-control philosophies, are far less effective.


Today’s headlines reinforce how difficult it is for company leaders to keep pace with constant turbulence, from COVID and geopolitical conflicts to social issues and strained macroeconomic conditions. Making this more complex, employee expectations have changed, making many traditional practices and norms obsolete. Why do some leaders appear to be losing the plot? Are they unwilling or incapable of pivoting to build the emotive tissue that connects their employees to their organization’s purpose? HOW we lead is just as important as WHAT we are leading our organizations towards, especially in times of uncertainty.


Organizations focused on thriving, not merely surviving, are reassessing old paradigms to respond quickly to new challenges and opportunities. And, while hierarchy arguably is inherent, it should become less of an obstacle as teams collaborate more closely to achieve winning outcomes. This is not rocket science, but it does require a high level of self-awareness and, dare I say, humility.


Some of my best leadership moments did not occur when I was charging the hill. Instead, they were the moments when I invited my team to the table to tackle problems head on and reassured them that I believed in them. Those were the shoulder-to-shoulder moments when I effectively led my team while working at their side.


Let me explain further.


My “side by side” leadership philosophy began taking shape when I left corporate to launch a start-up. Without the shield of deep resources and prolonged timelines, I learned the importance of communicating with my team early and often. When challenges emerged, which was often, I shared them transparently. More importantly, I asked for help and engaged in collective problem solving. I also provided quick feedback, sometimes delivering unpleasant news but always with positive intent. What I saw emerge was a culture where everyone had a shared sense of purpose, individual belief, and commitment to each other. For me, it was a lesson in achieving greater impact by building the right culture.


Despite society’s fascination with charismatic leaders, the fact is that no single leader, especially today, can effectively lead an organization alone. Collaboration, different points of view, and team problem-solving approaches are essential for progress. Leaders who work side by side aren’t afraid to be challenged; they encourage healthy debate and foster ownership of ideas and outcomes among the team of smart, capable individuals they’ve assembled.


We’ve read about leaders who believe that always being out in front of their employees equates to being visionary. Their arrogance fosters the impression that they are the most knowledgeable person in their company, a shepherd who must lead a flock. In a world of rapid change, when executives require help recognizing blind spots and cracks in the organization, hubris can be harmful. By leading too far ahead, these leaders risk falling into a “leaderless trap” in which they are so far ahead that they leave employees behind, becoming an unrelatable caricature. As a result, they lose touch with their organization’s current realities. Employees today value and respect leaders that are relatable and human, rather than rigid and arrogant.


Those who lead from behind are at the other extreme of the spectrum. Leading from behind, which is sometimes disguised as full empowerment or autonomy, risks giving employees the impression that their manager lacks interest, direction, or clarity. As a result, these leaders may push and prod employees to get them where they need to go. Micromanagement, a lack of actual empowerment, and a sense of aimlessness are all possible outcomes.


Today, we have the choice to lead alongside our teams, side by side. This style of leadership creates an environment in which leaders can successfully listen, coach, guide and develop an employee’s potential, resulting in increased impact. From this vantage point, they can easily deliver a pat on the back or a tough love nudge. When leaders work side by side, they foster a culture in which every member of their team is seen, felt, and heard.


Side by side leadership does not abdicate the leader’s accountability, nor should it create an unfettered democratic workplace that leads to stagnation. It is not “soft” leadership. Instead, it is a people-centric philosophy that asserts that the coexistence of competence, confidence and humility as leadership traits result in greater business outcomes.


My goal as a side by side leader is to walk alongside my team as we navigate change, providing direction, support, and course correction as needed. This approach recognizes that everyone brings value and that organizations can flourish in change by fostering a shared sense of purpose and ownership.


If you’d like to hear more about our company’s transformation, join me at reynoldsamerican.com/careers or follow me on LinkedIn for future blogs.