If you’re a leader, can you choose to lead by example? – NO! You are always leading by example whether you choose to be or not. Your people are always watching you and what they see, sets the example.
I’ve talked before about the notion that effective leadership is a set of behaviors that will result in your people following you the right way. In my experience as a leadership coach and trainer, I’ve seen that most leaders who don’t take the time to systematically learn those behaviors, like a guitarist practicing their chords and strum patterns, only end up being proficient at a handful of the behaviors leaving most unpracticed. Leading by example sounds great on the surface, but, your people expect more of you. And leading by example is only one of the many behaviors expected of leaders.
What does it mean to lead by example?
Well, what leaders tend to think it means is: If I do my job well, my people will follow suit and do their job well. What it means to those who work for us: As a start, you (leader) need to do your job well if you expect me to even consider doing my job to the same standard. Leading by example, only sets the standard to which people should work toward. It doesn’t mean they will actually work toward those standards. Read the anecdote below to see how a person’s attempt to lead by example went horribly wrong.
A dozen or so years ago I had the opportunity to train a new supervisor where I was working. She was to be in charge of a crew of people whose responsibility was to set the sales floor back to standard after a busy day’s customer traffic and business. There were just enough people on the crew to get all the work done if all the crew-members worked in a disciplined and knowledgeable manner.
Not only was I to train her, but she was also set to train some new associates herself to do the frontline work. On the first day I began to train her, I tried (albeit poorly) to explain that being the supervisor meant that you had to work on your people skills just as much as your technical skills. On the second day, she said to me “I think it’ll be easier if I just lead by example.” So that’s what she did. She worked her part of the sales floor perfectly! It was set to standard every evening. She would even finish early so that she could then go and set the other areas of the floor to standard alongside her employees so they would see her leading by example.
At the end of some nights, by the time everyone needed to go home, the floor looked great. But as time went on, she began to see that her strategy wasn’t working. Her employees were doing less over time and she was doing more, they were letting her do their work, because she showed them through her example that she would. They began to take longer and longer breaks, because she never said anything when they would take a longer break; it didn’t seem to matter to them that she always took her breaks in the allotted time. The newer associates never could quite get the hang of the work, they didn’t understand the details because the purpose of those details was never really explained. The more seasoned employees were getting frustrated because the newer employees weren’t pulling their weight. The associates one night nearly rebelled because it was an extremely busy night and they were short an employee; they felt like they would never get the job completed and also felt like their supervisor (who was trying to lead by example) wasn’t taking charge and developing a new strategy in the moment – to them, this was a losing effort and not worth it. The “lead by example” supervisor finally told them, it’ll all be OK, just get done what you can then go ahead and leave at the end of your shift; I’ll take care of the rest. The supervisor was there another 5 hours after everyone else left. Over the next few days, almost all the newer associates quit; they simply hadn’t been given the one-on-one attention they expected and needed from their leader.
These few days, where everything came to a head, she finally admitted defeat and came to me and another supervisor who had been successful for many years and asked us for help; she asked what she needed to do differently. We were able to guide her through the skills of providing vision to the associates – explaining the why. We helped her develop her skills at giving feedback. We held her hand through getting comfortable with holding people accountable. We taught her how to teach and train others in a way that increased their chances of learning new skills quickly. We taught her to listen to the whispers before they become screams so that she could change course when the crew needed her to. All of this is outside the borders of “leading by example.” And it’s all 100% necessary to be a successful leader.
Dear reader, here’s your call to action: Listen for the words “I like to lead by example.” When you hear them, be aware that whoever said it is probably not doing enough to effectively lead others. If you’re the person that said it, ask for help, you’ve got some learning to do. Find a mentor who can challenge you to develop the rest of your leadership skills.