Stop Leading by Example

Or know what you’re an example of…

Behave deliberately.

When uncovering characteristics that great leaders share, typically participants in a training class will say, “Great leaders are good role models, they lead by example.”  I don’t remember a single discussion on this topic where that characteristic was not mentioned.  And when participants in classes talk about their legacy, their impact, they consistently say they want to be a role model and lead by example.

And I’m thinking, yeah….but what does that really mean?

I mean early in my leadership days when I was climbing the corporate ladder, I was certainly leading by example.  I worked endlessly, long hours with a never-ending intensity that had me frequently ignoring my family, my friends and my life.  I took on every challenge presented with a focus and passion unequaled (my humble observation) by others.  I was tireless.  Committed.  Achieving.

Yup, I was a role model for hard work.  I led by example.

What was I teaching?  In hindsight, I certainly wasn’t modeling a healthy balance in life.  And I was (probably, well, honestly yes actually) missing opportunities to empower and delegate to others.  Clinging to work and new challenges to show how it could be done.  See employees–this is how you create burn out!  Watch me do it!  This is how you miss the fact that your sister is moving and the whole family is there, and you didn’t even know it.  Schmuck.

So, when I hear leaders or emerging leaders say that they want to lead by example, okay I get it.  I believe what they’re saying is that we should do what we expect from others.  Align our words and actions.  Be honest, reliable, authentic, transparent or many other amazing characteristics that we long for from our leaders.

I think we need to be more intentional with this strategy.  Those who lead with the, “I want to lead by example” strategy, without clarity about what is to be modeled, or even if that characteristic is valued or noticed by others—may fall short in getting their followers to follow.

Just because I am passionate about my work does not mean others will be.  Just because I am honest and direct does not translate into others behaving in this same manner.  I can be modelling and an example of all kinds of behaviors, things that I believe are essential ingredients to success.  And others can choose to ignore them.  Crap.

I mean if this strategy worked, we’d never have a performance problem would we?  Because that would mean that whatever that individual was doing, we were modeling or doing too.  And that would suck.

If you really want lead by example, be more deliberate.  Consider what you want to be known for.  What examples are you setting?  Or ask others what you are known for.  Examples we set can be positive and constructive, or they can be not so awesome.

What if you’re impatient?  What if you cancel meetings on a regular basis?  What if you are chronically late?  What if you don’t hold others accountable?  What if you don’t address conflict?

You are leading by example.

And this is the dark side of this strategy.  That others notice the good and the bad of how we lead.

I modelled some great leadership behaviors, and I modelled some poor ones.  The times that I didn’t get it right.  And that was my example.

Of course this doesn’t mean we can be perfect.  Nor should we aspire to be.  What it means is when we do set a poor or bad example, we notice it.  Admit it.  Talk about it.  Do better next time.  And learn from it.

So, should you stop trying to lead by example?  Heck no, knock yourself out.  And I mean that, be the one who shows how it’s done.  How people should be treated.  How effective results can be achieved with hard work and persistence.  But don’t expect that others will automatically model the same.

Be clear in the kinds of behaviors you are modelling and what you want to be an example of….and don’t let this replace being crystal clear in what you expect from others.

Because leading by example doesn’t mean that others will watch, absorb, model and value what you value.