(Kind of strange that Nelson Mandela had a quote on leading from the back and another on leading from the front. Makes me think at least one is fake.)
Now, these are the generals that we tend to see in fantasy stories. At least when combat is actually going on. They may be standing around a table and talking for the most part, but they eventually step onto the battlefield. Unless they’re killed by a traitor or there isn’t a military battle involved in the story. Either way, these heavily armored figures are typically some kind of a decorated knight. It doesn’t surprise anybody when they show that they earned their rank.
Unlike the ones who lead from the back, physical abilities are a big factor in how effective this character is. They aren’t directing armies from a vantage point, but are in the thick of the battle. Orders are still shouted when they’re needed, but this general is the point of a spear instead of the hand wielding the weapon. So, they have a preoccupation with staying alive and can’t think of much more. Considering what every other solider is doing would get one killed here. They can only examine their surroundings after powering through the enemies, which requires strength, speed, endurance, and combat skill.
This isn’t to say this type of general is an idiot and intelligence doesn’t matter. They work off a different mindset where one doesn’t have a lot of time to adjust. Experience and a flexible mind are necessary to change strategies in the heat of battle while continuing to stay alive. One could say that wisdom and instinct are more important for this role than knowledge and intelligence. After all, a warrior wouldn’t make it to the rank of general if they lacked the sense to survive all previous battles.
Risk analysis is another difference because the previous category would have enough time to think hard about this topic. While this general would consider it at the start, they wouldn’t be able to change in the same way once the battle begins. A change reported to or noticed by one leading from the back can be considered carefully before a decision is made. The delivery of the information would be fairly quick as well. When leading from the front, it isn’t easy to be told about a change in the battle and the general won’t notice events going on far from their area. So, there will be a delay, which could result in a rash decision. This is one of the risks that this type of leader takes.
The tradeoff would be a higher morale. Psychologically, one can see how soldiers will fight harder and with more ferocity if their general is in the same level of danger. I think this is the philosophy of Alexander the Great, but I’m not sure. The point is that the soldiers see that their leader wouldn’t have them do anything that they weren’t willing to do. This creates respect, so they will fight hard to protect their leader and show that they are worthy of such treatment. Much of this will stem from how a culture perceives strength and strategy, but there is an emotional boost that comes from this type of leader.
Now, how can one who leads from the front handle giving orders? That’s another aspect of being in the front and fostering high morale. Soldiers, especially those who have been given ranks, need to be trusted to handle situations in their area. The general is fighting on their own and giving orders when possible, but there has to be some personal responsibility as well. If the battle shifts, a lieutenant far away will need to makes decisions while also sending a message to the general. Trust and understanding are essential to this because they need to know what their leader would want. At the same time, they would need to have some individuality to remain flexible. It’s a difficult balance to create in a character.
Between the two, I would saying a general who leads from the front is the more entertaining category. We get to throw them into action and there’s less of a risk of the readers getting bored. They can function very well as a main character because of this benefit. Authors can also fall into a trap of making them the only competent soldier and forgetting that generals work with an army. Strategies are ignored and the general simply charges in to do everything on their own. In reality, they still need to be team players and work with their men, who they should trust. If not, you have a leader who doesn’t treat their people well and will probably be betrayed. A viable option, but the hubris/egotism of a leader causing their downfall is fairly common.
So, what do you think of those who lead from the front?