Be a good, not bad, example

by | Jan 24, 2012 | Blog | 1 comment

The captain of the Costa Concordia, the new sheriff in San Francisco and the former CEO of MF Global are great examples—examples of how not to lead by example.

The hapless captain, sheriff and CEO are teaching just-in-time lessons on what not to do when you’re in charge and faced with adversity.

To summarize the learnings from recent headlines:

  • Don’t abandon your ship when passengers are still on board.
  • Don’t trivialize significant allegations about a serious topic, especially domestic violence.
  • Don’t plead ignorance about what’s going on when you’re one of the smartest people in the room.

Unfortunately, these three characters have lots of company these days. Many leaders seem to practice “do as I say” rather than “do as I do.”

As I observed several months ago in this blog post about “Leadership = examples + sacrifice,” leading by example may be a quaint, outdated practice.

Nonetheless, leading by example remains a powerful way to influence people, particularly around change. Actions speak louder than words, especially when you see leaders role modeling the behavior changes they expect from us, their employees.

So what do we do to help leaders lead by example when good role models are in such short supply?

Don’t just point out the bad behavior of others. Encourage these three actions:

  1. Support your leaders in staying grounded so they’re equipped to escape self-inflicted wounds. (For some good tips, see this blog post on Staying Grounded.)
  2.  Offer to be a mirror, observing potential scenes when actions and words may be out of focus or alignment—and preferably noticing any glitches before problems happen.
  3.  Ask others, either face-to-face in focus groups or through anonymous surveys. For example, in the article “How to Help your Leaders Be Credible in Incredible Times” that Tony Simons and I coauthored, Tony offered up some good questions to ask in surveys. These include “My boss shows the same values he/she describes”; “My boss delivers on promises”; and “My boss practices what he/she preaches,” which is at the heart of leading by example.

Asking others sends a strong message. It shows that you know the issue is important, you’re dealing with it front and center, and you want feedback.

For example, for one of my change clients for whom urgency is a critical issue, I just asked this question in a survey: “To what extent do you think the company’s senior leaders are acting with a sense of urgency?” (We were pleased that 85% of the respondents said that leaders were practicing urgency.)

Do you still believe in leading by example? If so, what do you to serve as a good example?

1 Comment

  1. Alex Hulshof

    Always be on time.

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