Leading by Example

Making Sure You "Walk the Talk"

Do you lead by example?

© iStockphoto

There's the boss who tells everyone to stay late, and then leaves promptly at 5:00pm to go golfing.

There's the supervisor who criticizes everyone for spending time on the Internet, but is discovered buying groceries online in the middle of the afternoon.

And the CFO who recommends layoffs to stop "unnecessary spending," but then buys herself brand-new luxury office furniture.

Do you know any of these people?

There's hardly anything worse for company morale than leaders who practice the "Do as I say, not as I do" philosophy. When this happens, you can almost see the loss of enthusiasm and goodwill among the staff. It's like watching the air go out of a balloon – and cynicism and disappointment usually take its place.

No matter what the situation is, double standards – witnessing people say one thing, and then doing another – always feel like betrayals. They can be very destructive. If this ever happened to you, you can probably remember that sense of disappointment and letdown.

If you're in a leadership position, then you know that you have a responsibility to your team. They look to you for guidance and strength; that's part of what being a leader is. And a big part of your responsibility is to lead them with your own actions.

So, why is it so important to lead by example; and what happens when you don't?

Why It Matters

There's an old saying about the difference between a manager and a leader: "Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things." (It's best to be both a manager and a leader – they're just different processes.)

As a leader, part of your job is to inspire the people around you to push themselves – and, in turn, the company – to greatness. To do this, you must show them the way by doing it yourself.

Stop and think about the inspiring people who have changed the world with their examples. Consider what Mahatma Gandhi accomplished through his actions: He spent most of his adult life living what he preached to others. He was committed to nonviolent resistance to protest injustice, and people followed in his footsteps. He led them, and India, to independence – because his life proved, by example, that it could be done.

Although Gandhi's situation is very different from yours, the principle is the same. When you lead by example, you create a picture of what's possible. People can look at you and say, "Well, if he can do it, I can do it." When you lead by example, you make it easy for others to follow you.

Look at legendary businessman, Jack Welch of General Electric. Welch knew that to push GE to new heights, he had to turn everything upside down. So that's just what he did.

He developed the whole idea of a "boundaryless organization." This means that everyone is free to brainstorm and think of ideas – instead of waiting for someone "higher up" in the bureaucracy to think of them first. He wanted his team turned loose, and he promised to listen to ideas from anyone in the company. And he did. Everyone from the lowest line workers to senior managers got his attention – if they had something to say or a new idea that might make the company better. It wasn't just talk, and it didn't take his team long to figure that out.

Welch stayed true to his passions and what he knew was right. As a result, GE became an incredibly successful company under his management. His team was always willing to follow his lead, because the people within it knew that he always kept his word.

What does this mean for you? If you give yourself to your team and show them the way, then, most likely, they'll follow you anywhere.

When You Don't Lead by Example

We've seen just how powerful it can be to lead by example. But what happens when you don't follow this rule? How does your team feel when you tell them to do one thing, and then you do the exact opposite?

As we said earlier, if this ever happened to you, then it shouldn't be hard to remember how angry and disappointed you were.

When leaders don't "practice what they preach," it can be almost impossible for a team to work together successfully. How can anyone trust a leader who talks about one thing, but does another?

Consider what might have happened if Gandhi had, even one time, been in a physical fight with his opposition. His important message of nonviolent protest would probably have been much harder to believe after that. His followers would have looked at him with suspicion and distrust. The chances of them getting into physical arguments or committing acts of violence probably would have increased dramatically.

Do you think that Alexander the Great's soldiers would have fought so hard for him if he had sat on top of a hill, safe from the battle? Probably not. He would have been just another average general in our history books, instead of the example of a successful leader that we know today.

And so it is with your team. If you say one thing and do another, they likely won't follow you enthusiastically. Why should they? Everything you tell them after that may meet with suspicion and doubt. They may not trust that you're doing the right thing, or that you know what you're talking about. They may no longer believe in you.

Good leaders push their people forward with excitement, inspiration, trust, and vision. If you lead a team that doesn't trust you, productivity will drop. Enthusiasm may disappear. The vision you're trying so hard to make happen may lose its appeal, all because your team doesn't trust you anymore.

Key Points

Good leadership takes strength of character and a firm commitment to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. This means doing what you say, when you say it. If your team can't trust you, you'll probably never lead them to greatness.

Leading – and living – by example isn't as hard as it might sound. It's really the easiest path. If your team knows that you'll also do whatever you expect from them, they'll likely work hard to help you achieve your goal.

Mahatma Gandhi and Alexander the Great helped change the world because they lived by example – and, as a result, they accomplished great things.

Apply This to Your Life

  • If you ask a co-worker to do something, make sure you'd be willing to do it yourself.
  • If you implement new rules for the office, then follow those rules just as closely as you expect everyone else to follow them. For example, if the new rule is "no personal calls at work," then don't talk to your spouse at work. You'll be seen as dishonest, and your staff may become angry and start disobeying you.
  • Look closely at your own behavior. If you criticize people for interrupting, but you constantly do it yourself, you need to fix this. Yes, you want people to pay attention to one another and listen to all viewpoints, so demonstrate this yourself.
  • If, in the spirit of goodwill, you make a rule for everyone to leave the office at 5:00 p.m., then you need to do it too. If you stay late to get more work done, your team may feel guilty and start staying late too, which can destroy the whole purpose of the rule. The same is true for something like a lunch break – if you want your team to take a full hour to rest and relax, then you need to do it too.

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Comments (9)
  • Michele wrote Over a month ago
    Hi satyendra,

    I like the phrase you used "live in glass houses with the lights on". Once you become a leader, you are "always on". Employees watch your every move to make sure that your actions match your words.

  • satyendra wrote Over a month ago
    " The ordinary soldier has a good nose for what is true and what false". It is true that a leader ( at Lower, Middle or the Highest levels) live in a glass house with lights on. Every one can see him/her very clearly. So Daddy don't preach. In fact, lead by example is the first and foremost of all types of leadership; be in military or civil.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi everyone,
    Colin, you can take your exercise of listing all the things you DON'T want one step further and make it even more powerful! It's a great starting piont to list the things you do not want. Now, turn them around to things you DO want. What behaviours would you want to demonstrate or do instead?

    The unconscious mind negates the 'negative' word (don't, can't etc) and picks up the rest. So, when you say you 'I don't want to talk over people', the mind picks up 'talk over people'. If you tell a young child to 'not walk in the puddles', their brain hears 'walk in the puddles'.

    If the whole leadership team tried this, wonder what a difference it would make to the team!

    Good luck.
  • colinscowen wrote Over a month ago
    try turning the situation around in your head. Ask yourself what people have had to do in the past to win your trust. Ask yourself what people have done in the past that has made you stop trusting them. Write both of these lists down. Try to do the first list, try not to do the second.

    Another thing that I have found helps is to ask someone you trust to keep a critical eye on you. This works very well if they have a copy of, and indeed have maybe added a couple of points to, your two lists. You must be prepared to accept what they say though, remember, you asked them for help.
    Also, be prepared for the fact that what you are doing may well become more common knowledge that you think. People watch, people talk. You have to assume this, and you have to carry on regardless, remember the reason why you are doing this in the first place.

    Well, that's my two pennies in the pot.
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Janani, welcome to the forums! It's fabulous to hear from you, and your question is one that many of us relate to. Sometimes we have to try and fix things with our team and the fact that you recognize things need improving is the number one motivation for change.

    In our article Building the Trust of Your New Team http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=1226 we have lots of great ideas for building (or rebuilding) the foundation for a great relationship. Being really honest and accountable, as well appreciating people’s work and being humble are great places to start. Our article on Humility is also a good motivator when you recognize the need to make changes in yourself. You can read it here: http://www.mindtools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=446

    I wish you well on your journey to better team relationships. Let us know how things go and keep posting questions – it’s one of the best ways to learn and the people here at the club have so many fabulous ideas!

    Take care and let me know if there is anything I can help you with as you get started in the club.

  • janani wrote Over a month ago
    Its a great article, after I read the article I am able to co-relate things why my team lost interest and the productivity is down. What is the efficient way to regain the trust, moving forward I will follow the "walk the talk", but how to rebuild the lost trust?

    Any pointers will help.

    FYI: This is my first post and today is my first day in mind tools.

  • colinscowen wrote Over a month ago
    you will find, should you be interested in reading around the subject a bit (Peter Northouse wrote probably the best primer on leadership that I have ever read, Maxwells 21 irrefutable laws is also a good starter), that influencing others is one of the definitions of leadership, so, although you may not be leading the meeting, you may well find that you are leading people in the meeting.

    A way to try and see that is, next time you are in a meeting, or situation, where someone is suggesting a change of some form, have a look around at the others in the meeting, and see who they look to. Whose opinion do they wait to hear.

    You may not see this in every case, and you may not see it at work, maybe among a group of friends, but, if you do see it, what you have seen is a real leader. Because, that person has followers. They might be the most experienced person there.

    If everyone argues and talks at the same time, then, probably there is no leader there.
  • Jara wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks for the article and for the do's and don'ts that Colin posted. I never thought about thinking in terms of NOT doing what I've really disliked others doing to me. It's a great perspective to take.
    One of my biggest don'ts is "Don't make assumptions about a person's capabilities or value to the team based on their age or experience."

    It's so awful to always feel inferior so I go out of my way to ask for feedback from the newest employees and those who I can tell are a bit unsure offering opinions. Even in meetings, although I'm often one of the ones being judged, I have learned (through Mindtools!!) to be more assertive and stick up for myself so I make a point of making sure everyone is included. Even though I'm not the "leader" I hope I can influence others with my behavior just the same.

  • colinscowen wrote Over a month ago
    Leading by example is one of those things that any team member can do. I have seen this where one person has felt strongly enough about something to just stand up and do it. Others see this, see that it is possible, see that management don't squash this sort of freelance creative improvement, and start to think that maybe they can do this themselves.

    Leading by example is, in this respect, a viral thing. One thing I recently did was this, it is from something that the founder of Visa said, when talking about leadership.'Make a list of things that have been done to you that you hated, then never do them to anyone else'. I know I have not quoted that exactly by the way.

    I actually did that exercise, I came up with the following things. I did it slightly differently, I spent a week watching how others behaved, both towards me, and towards each other, and then wrote myself a list of things not to do. I also then handed this list to some of our leader group (a group of my peers, non-management, who share an interest in improving our leadership skills) and asked them to do the same thing, adding any additions on the bottom of my list. (These are in no particular order at the moment, but two possible orders spring to mind. I could order them by importance, or by whether I catch myself doing them)

    Do not talk over other people

    Do not interrupt when it is not vitally important

    Do not change the subject until the subject is finished

    Do not vent at someone when they are not involved

    Do not keep or hoard information, do not block that information, do not assume that someone else will forward that information

    Don't not update people on your work in progress

    Don't say one thing, and then do another thing.

    Don't try to answer a question you did not listen to

    Don't assume that just because you said something, or emailed someone, that that everyone heard you and was listening to you.

    Don't move the goal posts without warning

    Don't treat others the way they treat you, treat them the way they want to be treated

    Part of the follow up to this will be, if doing that exercise has helped them to stop doing some of the things that they have listed. This is viral leadership by example. I have shown that I am willing to do it, and have in fact done it, then I have asked them to do it, and, I know, because I have asked them, that some of them have done it. I have also noticed that this has helped me to stop doing some of the things I have listed above.

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