Leading by Example; Leading Effectively

Combat Troops
Editable vector silhouettes of armed soldiers charging forward with each man as a separate object

“The best thing you can do to help others take responsibility is to authentically practice the behaviors that you want others to practice.” – Dr. Michelle Reina

“I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” – Indra Nooyi


In leadership and management – as in parenting – an attitude that says, “Do as I say, not as I do!” is a recipe for disaster, building resentment and disrespect, in turn.

Unfortunately, leaders lacking character abound, so that examples of their disregard for the effort and feelings of hard working employees often cause them to serve as the wry butt of sarcastic jokes targeting and mocking such behaviors – Have you ever had that boss who rants at company meetings about the need for departments to immediately slash all unnecessary expenses, and then proceeds to plan and sponsor a costly executive retreat; or another boss who insists that everyone stay late to work on a project, then mumbles lame excuses about having forgotten an important, last-minute “meeting,” and slips out the door shortly after quitting time, demanding that all reports be “on my desk, first thing in the morning!”

Such double standards betray the very essence of leadership, in that a good leader never asks workers to expend additional hours and effort, or perform any task that he or she, as manager, is unwilling to tackle in order to accomplish the job at hand. If the project is important enough to book overtime, it merits the presence of a manager to ensure that questions are answered, guidance is available, that problems can be readily addressed, and necessary permissions or concessions obtained.


Leaders have a responsibility to their teams to model the behaviors they ask from the people who answer to them. The results of reckless leadership, as in displaying an obvious double standard regarding rules and responsibilities, are almost always negative. Trust is lost, and once well-regarded organizations soon flounder as employees and associates become disillusioned or discouraged. Vital energy and direction are lost. Respect falls victim to failed leadership.

In example, Congressional leaders consistently disappoint voters by legislatively exempting themselves from the requirement to follow the very laws they, themselves, write to govern the behavior of others. Is there any question why Congress, in recent years, is held in such low esteemed by voters of both parties?

Leaders demonstrate their beliefs and inspire others by their actions, not just by their words.

Perhaps those whose actions are in direct opposition to their speech exhibit the worst form of leadership. Such individuals can hardly be recognized as leaders and are highly mistrusted by allies and foes, alike. Their word is worthless, and their image suffers from the unflattering opinions of the public and of those serving in close positions, or who are otherwise subject to their instructions. Once distrust is firmly established, there is little that such an individual can do to reestablish the credentials of leadership. The character deficits of such a person occupying a leadership position is simply too overwhelming to ever justify their behavior, and their actual accomplishments are usually few in number. Leaders of this ilk leave behind a company or organization – and sometimes, a nation – that must essentially be rebuilt from the ground up. And the bitter skepticism such disappointing leadership leaves behind taints future leaders, who must establish leadership strength by example, routinely backing their words with consistent action, thus demonstrating commitment to meeting expectations of followers and reasserting standards within an entity grown slack as a result of the previous leader’s misguidance and ethical betrayals.

Standards, as well as behaviors, are modeled by leadership. Organizations struggling under poor leadership have difficulty presenting a cohesive message and retaining their ethical standards, once the modeled behaviors of inconsistency and undependability spread through a business or institution, to its grave detriment.

When leaders commit to a high standard, when their word can be trusted and their behaviors in the face of daily challenges are worthy of emulation, organizations thrive. Consciously or unconsciously, a leader or manager sets the dress code, creates the social atmosphere, and establishes the work standard – the integrity and intensity of effort – in every department or division they influence. By committing to ever greater challenges and putting in the ‘sweat equity’ to achieve an objective or ideal, employees are inspired to do the same with projects within their purview.

When a leader is good and fair, and directs his or her skills toward achieving noble purposes, he or she sets an example of what is expected by other members of the organization. A sense of organizational pride supports individual workers and inspires their efforts and good choices, both in the workplace and in their lives.

Leaders and managers set company vision and chart direction, influencing employees through their choices, expressed thoughts and attitudes, and the behaviors exhibited when working toward fulfilling the mission they are entrusted to carry out. When leaders provides poor models for organizational behaviors, conflict among individuals and between departments becomes the rule. Plans or solutions cannot gather the consensus necessary for effective execution, and projects languish.

A leader can never go wrong when leading by example, so long as that example shows positive effort, sincere appreciation and respect for others, achievement of reasonable goals that advance the company mission, consistent delivery on promises, promotion of strategic cooperation, and effective conflict resolution, in tandem with behaviors that support and value other people. Who wouldn’t follow a leader with those traits? And who would be reluctant to model their own behaviors along those lines?

How one presents oneself in a leadership or management role affects one’s ability to influence and motivate others and leverage authority in a manner that elicits their best efforts. When a leader or manager establishes an impeccable standard of excellence and adheres to it, even at the most difficult moments, they inspire others to follow their lead and effectively raise behavioral standards throughout the organization.

Modeling expected or desired behaviors is the surest method of teaching others what is acceptable, appreciated and expected from each member of a business. Since company image has a significant impact on customer perceptions and – ultimately – sales, it is to the firm’s benefit when all employees take pride in their leaders, and in their own job performance. When excellence is showcased, rewarded, and held up as an inspiration to others, it creates results that will be envied by many.

Without the ability to deliver results, rhetoric is just seen as ‘hot air’ that offers little value and has no effect on outcomes. Tangible gains, however, beget even greater effort by employees to achieve the results desired by managers and company leaders. Gains affirm the development of praiseworthy employee behaviors.

Leaders and managers with top-notch people skills exhibit the traits essential to sound leadership, relating to their employees authentically, and in a meaningful way, by listening attentively and being open, honest, and fair. With strong communication and decision-making skill sets, strong leaders demonstrate to their associates, and to the employees they manage, how one makes good decisions and competently drives a project forward, while maintaining appropriate attention to detail.

Transparency in thought and action and consistency of results are strong motivators, and are behaviors that inspire achievement. Such behaviors offer a basis for seamless collaboration, and collaboration builds well-performing teams, capable of implementing complicated business strategies. A manager who encourages opportunities for healthy cooperation and creative collaboration will reap the rewards created by the ‘esprit de corps’ inspired teams can forge, when dedicated to the excellence of the project or product for which they are responsible, and hence ‘own.’ Operating in an atmosphere with less turmoil and in-fighting, teamwork offers employees a highly challenging and intellectually attractive work environment, supported by camaraderie and a sense of purpose.

Rightly or wrongly, many people carry resentments toward those who are wealthy or are in a positions of power or authority. This is a very personalized ‘chip’ they bear in perpetuity, a burden they refuse to put down, irrespective of the conduct of those around them. And they hold their suspicions dear, refusing to see reason. Their skepticism toward command that is enabled solely through exercise of authority crumbles, however, when confronted by concrete behavioral examples inspiring good faith. Those “in high places” are humanized when they share equally in efforts toward a goal; managers who roll up their sleeves and carry their share of the load become ‘real people.’

When an entire company – without exception – tightens its belt in the face of financial reversals, or constraints, departments are more willing to put the pencil to planning budgets and share in the pain.

Once leadership is no longer trusted, however, enthusiasm and dedication wane. Vision vanishes. Suspicions and doubts multiply. Confusion is fed by uninspired and uninspiring leaders deemed no longer trustworthy, and conflicts between mission and agreed-upon means of accomplishing it increase. Not matching words with actions is sure to occasion perceived abuses of power and encourage ineffective, situational management at all levels of the organization.

When words are no longer connected with potential behaviors, as one might reasonably expect, and when employees fail to act on recommended behaviors they rarely see exhibited by their leaders or managers, such inconsistencies open a world of distrust and uncertainty that is only matched by employee reluctance to follow through on dubious directions which may only minimally – and ineffectively – move a project along its path to accomplishment, and which could likely be reversed or altered on but a moment’s notice.

“Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” – Albert Einstein

Becoming the kind of leader or manager who can be trusted to support a vision or plan through hard work and “joining the troops in the trenches” for long hours in order to achieve objectives, is an accomplishment rewarded by the excitement, inspired dedication, trust, hard work and commitment of employees who will strive mightily to meet expectations and win approval.

Strength of character, common sense and a good work ethic are factors that bring employees to the notice of managers, who understand that becoming a good leader requires living the example you would ask other to embrace. When a manager isolates traits of leadership in one or more employees, it behooves that manager to point out those positive traits and encourage further personal development and the acceptance of greater levels of responsibility. Many employees exhibit excellent work habits and good attitudes, and have management potential. However, it is the firm commitment to always do the right thing at the right time, and for sound reasons, plus a willingness to wade into a project and ‘dirty one’s hands’ with the unglamorous tasks required for success, often shunned by others, that are the true marks of leadership; these traits stand apart from mere ambition, and merit recognition and careful cultivation, for here is a future leader in the making.

Managers are urged to always issue instructions that he or she would be willing to follow; to only assign tasks that they would be willing to do themselves; and to schedule major projects at a time they will be present in the office to provide guidance and lend a hand. If establishing new rules for office operations and behaviors, a good manager will follow the new rules to a ‘T’ and not make excuses or self-exemptions. Employees notice and remark on instances when the boss rewrites rules for him- or herself, while remaining a stickler for the obedience of others. When a manager behaves that way, the importance and validity of the new rules are essentially undermined, so employees find it hard to respect the rules, or the manager who subsequently flouts them.

Leading by example is not difficult for hard-working individuals of strong character and goodwill who have climbed the ladder to a management position by dint of hard work and talent, and whose people skills are superior to most. Managers who are accustomed to delivering what is expected of them and who respect – and expect – similar behavior in their subordinates will be pleased as team members work together in a way that emulates their manager’s behaviors, and thereby delivers optimal results in a timely manner.

Dependability is a highly valued behavior whenever the operation or function of a team can be jeopardized by members who fail to follow through on their assignments or are often late or absent. Honesty is prized when opinions are sought that may shape decisions affecting the progress of a project. Generosity of spirit often provides an antidote to stress and is the social lubricant that keeps a project moving forward despite differences that may arise between team members. All are learned behaviors that respond to modeling.

Here are additional steps a manager can take to create a strong work force, able and willing to take on virtually any task without grumbling, and give it their best effort:

  • As Aristotle taught his students, “He who has not learned to obey cannot be a good commander.” Never, ever, hash out disagreements with a superior in the company structure in the presence of your employees. Never. It is disrespectful to YOUR superior, and undermines your own authority to demand obedience from your employees when necessary. Understand that your team members are always closely watching you, as their manager, to learn what is acceptable within the organization and to understand the behaviors and interactions with others in the company that will build cooperation and contribute to their professional growth. And never bristle, object or offer excuses when asked by another to do something. Witnessing their manager’s rebellion or loud objections in the face of a direct order, instructions from a superior, or inquiry from another department head flies in the face of what that manager must try to convey on a daily basis to inspire followers. It is not conducive to either an atmosphere of calm cooperation, nor does it encourage loyalty and respect. If difficult issues must be addressed, schedule an appointment to discuss problems behind closed doors and work out a way to present any resultant changes in the best light, to keep employees focused on the task at hand and not engaged in office gossip.
  • The saying, “Officers eat last,” is the foundation of officer training and of corps spirit, as exhibited throughout military history. It means that a good leader always take care of the troops under his command before considering his own needs. A strong leader will always eat last, rest when the troops are have fallen asleep and rise before they do, to be ready to lead them into a new day. A good manager gets to the office early and should be the last to leave.
  • Great leaders and strong company managers always see to their employees’ physical, intellectual and emotional needs before their own and continue planning for their wellbeing and professional growth even after hours. Take care of your people. See that employees take breaks, enjoy a full lunch hour several times a week, take scheduled vacations and improve their skills through training opportunities.
  • When inconvenience complicates a task or delivers an unexpected obstacle that must be surmounted, a good manager will step up to the plate and take on the problem. Being pro-active earns respect and merits emulation. People more willingly follow those who voluntarily assume a burden in order to spare others the need to carry the full load.
  • Demonstrate self-discipline and self-command. A manager must have the ability to lead him- or herself – as well as others – with motivation and purpose, and demonstrate a degree of self-control necessary to drop vices and moderate behaviors, before he or she can ask the same of those who answer to them in the workplace. Many companies, faced with growing benefit costs, are encouraging non-smoking and weight control to improve the health of the workforce and respond to health insurance initiatives, A manager’s demonstrated self-control can help motivate team members to exercise, stick to a diet plan or strive to quit smoking.
  • There is no question that “Actions speak louder than words.” People select those they wish to model themselves after, and follow those whom they admire, based on their actions, rather than the words they utter. While clear communication is essential to good management, words only serve to inspire once actions supporting them are observed. When a manager operates transparently and honestly, or dives into a problem and gets right to work solving it, he or she is creating actionable examples for others to follow.
  • Always guard your language to avoid statements that create doubt or impact morale, and be aware of who is around to overhear comments that can be misinterpreted or passed along without the backstory, distorting perceptions and disrupting performance. Avoid gossip, always, and discourage it among subordinates.
  • Teach your employees, through your example, to respect the chain of command. Show employees that you respect leadership at all levels, and insist they do the same. An organization’s structural integrity is challenged when the chain is of command is broken, and going over the heads of superiors or around defined parameters that restrict certain activities, or access, only confuses the lines of authority and damages morale.
  • Listen to your team members. When you show employees the respect of devoting your whole attention to whatever they are telling you, they will be more inclined to behave that same way when communicating with fellow team members. Admitting to not being an expert on everything shows honesty and a willingness to learn from others; this is a vital element in building and leading strong teams, shaping attitudes and improving employee performance.
  • Never shy away from taking responsibility for errors committed. Admit that you have made a mistake; illustrate your willingness to accept responsibility and correct the error, then move on. Those who respect this quality in a leader will copy the behavior, readily admitting and working to correct their own mistakes.
  • Do not micromanage. Once the mission, vision, expectations and goals of an assignment or project have been communicated, step back and let your employees demonstrate their abilities, without hovering over them. They will feel empowered and will similarly interact with fellow team members, trusting that they, too, are competent to carry out tasks independently and report back to team leaders.

And, last, yet not least:

  • Prepare to be amazed, every day, by the degree of improvement in work-related attitudes and behaviors, solidly grounded in the sterling examples you have set for those eager to follow your lead!



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