To lead by example means to guide others through your behaviour instead of your words
As such this is a key attribute to defining good leadership in many contexts, as people expect leaders to show the way not just in words, but in actions.
Still, there are big pockets in many organisations, large and small, of managers who play by the rule of do as I say, not as I do. We all know that this attitude is short-lived because of the immediate impacts on peoples reactions.
Why does it matter?
The concept of Leading by Example is a perfect way to see Intentionality in action.
Let’s see why.
Have you have ever asked a manager How do you Lead by Example? Chances are that you will obtain one or more examples where they have been focused on showing a behaviour they found important. This question is about checking what people do that influences and inspires, something that requires both empathy and true introspection.
These examples will show us a lot about the leadership style and the perceived priorities of the manager.
Lead-by-example content is both mirror and window into leadership sense-of-self.
We can examine these examples from three lenses:
Content: the example chosen will say a lot about the leader’s values and priorities.
Influence: it will also say a lot about the intended impact on people’s perception.
Reciprocity: it will also help understand how other team members behave in response.
The Real Question
The true question should however be about who follows those examples and how.
How often did we listen to an executive telling a story about his priorities, just to see the rest of the room roll their eyes?
This is why inconsistency and hypocrisy so acutely matter when we talk about Leadership. And this is also why any leader needs to accept that s/he is always giving an example, whether good or bad.
- The CEO that during a tough business period predicates cost-control, but also changes his company car to the last available (and lavishly expensive) model.
- The executives that talk about Respect as a key value for the company, yet constantly arrive late at meetings.
- The manager that inscribes “Customer First” on all the walls of the office, yet doesn’t mention customers at all in any meeting they lead.
Managing your Examples
Very few executives today are unaware of the power of “example” in their actions, as this is a pivotal concept in any leadership training.
Yet, many underestimate the complexity of always conforming to a specific leadership priority in all actions they do.
An example can help us focus on the point.
Acme Company has decided to change its business direction, moving from an entirely wholesale business to a mixed model with a strong direct-to-consumer component.
Being *customer-first* in this scenario changes meaning quite a lot. The Commercial Director is an active proponent of this new strategy, yet fails to engage with the teams of the newly created stores. He continues to work mainly in the office, still holding most relationships with the B2B customers, showing interests around new frontline workers only in a few occasions of formal communication.
Asked about how he has been giving the example in supporting this change, this executive mentions that once a month he records a video fully dedicated to the frontline staff in the store, outlining the steps being done to execute the new strategy.
Yet perception is that there is not a real focus on the stores customers, and that store people are “left alone” sorting out all the problems of this start-up phase.
There can be multiple reasons that led to a situation similar to the one above. The biggest difficulty is for sure that this executive needed to continue focusing on old behaviour (focus on B2B customers) and develop a new one (focus on B2C business). A situation not always easy to master.
Being aware of the complexity of the situation is the first step to finding a solution. Continuing the example, as the executive understood the problem, he also understood he had to intentionally show the way, and started visiting stores more often, talking to store employees and customers directly.
Yet this could not make 100% of his time. He still needed to commit to other tasks for his role.
Moments that Matter
The reality is that people observe leaders around the moments that matter most for them. Meetings, feedback sessions, performance reviews, are all moments where leaders are observed and judged for what they say and how they act.
A lot of *weak signals* come then in the way and should not be underestimated.
Yet, we need to *focus* on the moments that matter most, intentionally building on these the (new) examples we want to make.
This is especially true in all moments of transformation, as it is critical to show the way. Looking at the examples I gave before, we could have:
- The CEO that during a tough business period predicates cost-control, gives up their company car and uses their own.
- The executives that talks about Respect as a key value for the company and starts showing up on time at every meeting.
- The manager that inscribes “Customer First” on all the walls of the office, and dedicates the first 15 minutes of every meeting on discussing customer related issues.
Remember: one of the attributes of intentionality is consistency. We need to ensure that the way we show direction needs to be coherent over time. Some elements will be easier because they are grounded in our core values. Others might take time, as we change behaviours linked to changing environments.
Yet intentional leadership
is also about accepting that we won’t be perfect all of the time, that during a moment of change we might stumble upon old habits. It’s a way to express authenticity
also showing that the work of a leader is not an easy one.
Above all is recognising that there is no hypocrisy in accepting that change is complex and needs time for adaptation.
What do you think?
PS: In this article, I used interchangeably the words “manager”, “leader” and “executive”, without the intention of giving a hierarchical positioning to any of them.