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What Leading By Example Really Means

Any discussion of great leaders will include the cliché that the best leaders lead by example. Stated in conversation, everyone will nod and agree. And if you are reflecting personally on the attributes of those you have willingly followed, you will find that common trait too. It seems there is little doubt that we influence others through our actions, especially when we are in a leadership role.

What Leading By Example Really MeansThe challenge is that it isn't just great leaders who are leading by example - we all are. As a leader /supervisor / manager, people are watching us. They are noticing everything we do - whether it is what we would want them to emulate... or not.

Since people are watching and are being influenced by our behaviour, for better or worse, it begs an important question.

What is the example we want to be setting?

This might seem like a simple question, but in practice, it isn’t quite that clear; and even when it is clear, it isn't all that easy. If your vision of 'leading by example' is creating some sort of cadre of mini versions of yourself, you are misguided. It won't really create the results you desire, even if your behaviours are fully worthy of being followed.

What 'leading by example' should mean is that our actions influence others to behave and respond in ways that we deem valuable and appropriate for our organisational outcomes.

In other words, while we need to focus on our behaviours, it isn't for the purpose of ego, but for the organisation's benefit. This is also made more difficult because we have a hard time describing what we really want from others. We speak in high level, vague language that is very difficult to turn into behaviours that can be emulated by others. The hit parade of attributes people say they want in team members includes:

  • Engaged and empowered
  • Flexible and open to change
  • Focused good attitude
  • Good work ethic

This is a good list, but what do these things really mean as we work each day?

If you can’t answer that question clearly, you can't 'lead by example' because you don't know what the example is supposed to be.

In other words, if we are going to lead by example in relationship to that list, we need to know what we really mean, and determine what behaviours create those outcomes. Let’s examine an example as it relates to the five items on the list above.

While examples could be given for each of these ideals, and what the behaviours would be, that ultimately isn’t very helpful to you. Because what these things mean in your organisation matter more than what they mean to others. Your ownership of these ideas and behaviours make a difference. Below is one example to help you get started:

Engagement and empowerment

If you want engagement and empowerment, consider the following behaviours:

  • Act like an owner - make decisions based on the highest good for the business and objectives
  • Be proactive by asking what you can do to help or improve a situation
  • Be accountable by recognising that there is always part of the project or result that you can impact in a positive way
  • Try things in service of the desired goal. And if you make a mistake, own it and learn from it

Hopefully this short example does three things:

  • Gets you to think and clarify what you are looking for from your team
  • Gets you to look in the mirror and see if you are delivering those things personally
  • Gives you a process for translating what you want, into the behaviours that produce it

The 'lead by example' cliché is a cliché because it is true - people are influenced by our actions. Our life as a leader would be easier if we could say all the right things and know that those words would significantly influence our team. While that would be easier, it is also unrealistic. Although our words matter, what we do matters far more. 

If we want our influence to be positive and productive, we must be clear on what we want from others, and then make sure our actions (as well as our words) support that. When we do this, we are leading by example in an intentional and productive way.

Author Credits

Kevin Eikenberry is a world renowned leadership expert, a two-time bestselling author, speaker, consultant, trainer, coach, leader, learner, husband and father. He was recently recognised by Inc.com as one of the top 100 Leadership and Management thinkers in the World. Visit his website at: www.kevineikenberry.com
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