Leading by example

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one” -Marcus Aurelius

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Hamid Safaei speaking: Why leading by example matters

Leading by example is one of the most important leadership principles I have explored in my second book First-Class Leadership. In this article I am pleased to share with you why it matters. 

The best way to set the standard for teams is to lead by personal example.

For instance, if you require respectfulness from your team members, they’ll look to see whether you respect others as you preach. If the leader’s norms, principles, and values are solid, then they rightfully can require the same from their teams.

Many great leaders are, or have been, on the frontlines; they know what is required from certain positions. They know how it feels and how stressful it is to take emergency calls. They work as hard and expect their followers to do the same. By setting an example of generosity, openness, credibility, and fairness, they show their followers how to behave. In this way, they acquire respect and credibility among their followers.

Great leaders wish their followers the same as they wish for themselves 

They don’t do to others what they don’t like to have done to themselves. First-class leaders deliver on promises, and display what it is to be counted upon and accountable. Leading by example, they demonstrate for what they stand.

First-class leaders demonstrate they are made for the hard times. They jump to the front and embrace tough challenges with confidence and determination. They show their followers the road to success by leading the way. They outline strategies to positively change the circumstances. They make sure their direct reports follow the same line and so the whole organization is united.

Have you ever seen bosses who, in tough times, give instructions to avoid unnecessary spending, and then suddenly you see them driving a brand-new car or redecorating their office with luxury furniture? Is this leading by example? Of course not.

Let me tell you a personal experience. Many years ago, I started a conversation with a high-ranked leader saying: “We’ve got to watch every penny, and now I see you ordering a brand-new, premium car, and when I look around and see your new office, I’m confused. Were the emailed instructions about cutbacks nonsense?” He didn’t like my curiosity. While drinking his cappuccino, he said, “Don’t interfere with things that are none of your business.” This was hard to stomach and it immediately triggered me to make up my mind and pursue my career elsewhere. It didn’t take long for that leader to be fired.

Imagine you were in such a situation. Would you feel valued or undervalued? Would you like to work for such a leader? What would happen to your productivity? How loyal would you be to such a leader? Would you compromise when it comes to principles such as integrity, respect, equality, and feeling valued at work? This is the opposite of leading by example.

Nothing will harm an organization more than a bad manager. Bankrupt companies have often been run by bankrupt leaders.

Leaders who are psychologically broke and suffer from lack of core principles in the essence of their being cannot inspire, cannot motivate, cannot offer perspective, and cannot lead.

Why leading by example matters

The famous philosopher Epictetus wisely said, “Make it your business to draw out the best in others by being an exemplar yourself”. 

The essence of leading by example is that you prove you believe in what you say, you do what you say, and you stand firmly behind the values you believe in.

This creates clarity for, instills hope in, and offers perspective to your employees. When you lead by example, people trust you and follow you. As a leader, you should never separate what you do from what you preach.

Leading by example matters because people need a GPS, a guideline, a roadmap, and a leader to follow. Many people outsource thinking and inventing, preferring instead to follow. There are no better guidelines than leading by example. Nor are there excuses for doing something different to the example set by the leader. When you lead by example, you demonstrate in simple language how it works. You will be easy to follow.

A great leader who led by example was Jack Welch. Welch developed the philosophy of the “boundaryless organization,” and in doing so revolutionized General Electric. Welch made it possible for everyone to come up with ideas instead of waiting for orders from the people “upstairs.” To embed the culture he wanted, he became the culture by listening to ideas and implementing what made sense and was good for the company. The likes of Welch know the best way to influence followers is being the example.

A moment of reflection for you

Spend a few minutes on mindfulness, reflect on yourself and do a proper self-assessment.

· Do you have consistency between your words and deeds?

· Do you practice what you preach?

When you lead by example, all your followers need to do is follow in your footsteps. Would you feel comfortable that your followers become like you?

Take your responsibility as a worthy leader to draw the best out in your people by being an example yourself. Become the GPS for your people.

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