Leading By Example

The leader always sets the trail for others to follow

The inspiration for today’s blog came when I read this quote that nicely sums up why leading by example matters so much… “A leader leads by example, whether he intends to or not.” (Source unknown). Today’s Karen Gately blog discusses the non-negotiable aspects of “walking the talk”

As a leader everything you do, everything you say, everything you don’t do and don’t say communicates volumes.  While what you say matters, it’s your actions that speak louder than your words – your actions tell people what you truly value, what matters the most and ultimately what doesn’t matter at all.  In my experience, fewer of your actions go unnoticed than you may realise.  People observe leaders and in doing so make judgement calls about both the extent to which they want to follow them as well as emulate their approach.

As a leader, core to your mission is to achieve great results by leveraging the full potential of your team.  In part this is achieved by inspiring people to strive to be the best they can be.  Great results don’t come from average contributions; great results are achieved when people with the right capabilities and deep emotional ownership of the outcome are motivated to invest the energy needed to succeed.  Successful leaders know that to directly influence this level of engagement from their team, they need to be the kind of person other people choose to follow. Trust and respect are non-negotiable prerequisites to having this influence; leading by example is core to earning and maintaining trust and respect.

To put it simply, while there are many great reasons to lead by example the two most important are:

  1. Earn the trust and respect needed to inspire others to follow you
  2. Influence people to behave in ways that will enable them and the team to be successful

Failing to practice what we preach is one sure way to undermine the confidence and trust others have in us.  For example, few people trust or respect the kind of boss who demands they work late to get an important job done, but are clearly not prepared to do the same.  Then there’s the manager who is a stickler for the rules that they routinely ignore.   A number of years ago I worked with a guy who insisted operational demands meant it was impossible to let staff occasionally participate in parent days at their child’s schools.  This same manager would openly declare when he was off to attend to a personal matter in the middle of a workday.  Then there was the manager who implemented a new rule of “no personal calls at work,” but proceeded to talk to her spouse typically more than once a day. Unsurprisingly both of these leaders struggled to build quality relationships with their teams and were clearly a poor example of how to inspire commitment and focus in others.

Also fatal to a leader’s credibility and ability to build trust is an approach that lacks empathy and consideration; equally crucial is a reputation for being consistent and fair in reaching decisions.  Recently I observed on organisation demonstrate both a lack of empathy as well as disregard for fairness and consistency.  On the same day as they announced substantial redundancies that were justified on the grounds of cost cutting, this leadership team chose to take delivery of four giant flat screen televisions.  Unfortunately for the people who lost their jobs that day, insult was added to injury as they were forced to walk past the workmen installing them on the way out of the building. When I asked what the thinking was behind that decision, I was told it hadn’t been thought through at all.  While that may be true, it’s a feeble excuse; their actions clearly showcased a lack of integrity in their decision-making as well as a concerning inability to act with compassion.  Among other consequences, failing to take greater care in treating their departing team members with respect was a poor example of how people in that business should treat one another.

Equally alarming and disappointing was observing a CEO I had been working with refit his office with overly lavish furniture during a time of significant financial pressure for his organisation.  On the one hand he was demanding that staff “stop unnecessary spending” while on the other feathering his own nest with unnecessary luxuries.

On a more positive note, it was good to read of the decision made by Stephen Hester, the chief executive of Britain’s Royal Bank of Scotland, to decline his hotly disputed bonus of shares worth close to £1 million.  Given the bank was bailed out at the height of the global financial crisis in 2008, which resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, the intention to pay such a large bonus to the CEO was met with public outcry.  Cynics might say Mr Hester was motivated by pressure, but in contrast to the less popular choice of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, to accept his bonus amidst hostile staff pay negotiations, it has to be acknowledged as a wise decision that is more likely to build trust and earn respect.

While fairness, consistency and integrity are crucial, people are also more likely to follow a leader who demonstrates willingness to get in the trenches, roll up their sleeves and do what they are asking others to do. That’s not to suggest as a leader you need to do other people’s jobs for them, but you do need to show that you are a part of the team and prepared to do the hard yards alongside them.  Having an attitude of “do what I say and not as I do” doesn’t work; this approach is only likely to undermine your credibility and hinder your ability to positively influence your team.  The only thing this attitude will lead to is draining the spirit of your team and leaving behind a climate of cynicism and disappointment.

Developing an organisation’s culture requires leaders to showcase the behaviours that are expected from everyone – whether that be putting in effort, choosing a positive attitude, dealing with conflicts constructively or helping a colleague to get their job done. For behaviours to become entrenched people need to observe them consistently displayed by leaders.  For example, team members are far more likely to go above and beyond the tasks defined by their job description if they observe leaders doing the same.  It’s important to remember that when you lead by example, you not only create a picture of what’s desirable but also what’s possible.

Some people tell me it’s difficult to always be a good example to their staff.  While I appreciate this is true, it’s a harsh reality that leaders don’t get to have a bad day (well at least not in front of their teams).   Great leadership takes strength of character and an unwavering commitment to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. Sometimes if we don’t believe we have the strength to be a positive example we need to find the way to avoid negatively influencing our team.  Everyone has their own strategies – personally I’m a fan of the “walk around the block” to let off steam, regather my composure and choose a better attitude before reengaging with my team.  While this may not work for everyone I strongly encourage leaders to find their own circuit breaker to ensure they consistently behave in ways that support their ability to earn trust and influence how others conduct themselves.

Despite the great relationships you feel you have with your team, don’t underestimate the detrimental impact your behaviours can have.  While many who trust and respect you will cut you some slack if you are having a bad day, I can speak from experience when I say that, while they may understand there are still likely to be undesirable consequences.  I found out the hard way that my stress over a particular challenge had become a major source of concern for my team.  While I believed I was just being open in sharing my thoughts, my behaviour encouraged my team to be equally focussed on fear and concern, rather than having confidence in our ability to overcome the obstacle in front of us.

To lead by example, observe your own behaviours and understand the impacts they are likely to have on others.  Not just the behaviours you will encourage in them but also the decisions they will make about trusting, respecting and ultimately following your leadership.

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