Leading by example is one leadership quality that has different views. In today’s world of equality for all, this quality has reduced relevance. In the earlier days of emperors and kings, and rigid hierarchy in society, when a leader bent down to the level of the common man and got his hands dirty, the effect on the team used to be magical.
In today’s environment, with the breakdown of social hierarchies, the “do as I direct” really doesn’t work. People see through it very quickly and have no problems in opposing that kind of a directive. So “do as I do” seems to be the conventional norm.
In our leadership survey analysis, “leads by example” has been highlighted as a desirable quality in a leader.
But can a leader really step down and “do things” every time to gain a better following and winning loyalty?
There are some situations/occasions where you as a leader must roll up your sleeves and show the team how things are done. Some of these situations or occasions are as follows:
When raising a child, it is very important that the parent(s) exhibit those qualities, behavior and discipline that they expect the child to develop. If a parent is totally disorganized, the child picks it up and it is very difficult to change such habits. The language spoken by parents in the house, the demeanor and attitude gets picked up and ingrained in the child. There is really no other way than for the parent to lead by setting a good example for the child to follow.
Similar to the parent-child, in the work environment any personality flaws or consistent lack of adherence to protocol/procedures gets picked up by the team. If such behavior continues and no deterrence is seen, the team somehow picks up the pattern and follows it.
If a manager sets up meetings that take up the appropriate amount of time, starts those meetings on time and ensures that only the interested and affected persons are invited, it becomes much easier for the same manager to demand similar behavior from her team.
When you are a subject-matter expert
I have seen this in action multiple times. A leader, who is a subject matter expert, comes to the assistance of a struggling team member, and simply does that little bit using his subject matter expertise. This wins over the team members and helps the team member get over the hump.
Such behavior instantly evokes awe and respect in the team member and deference, loyalty and trust follow.
Helping/training a rookie or a new recruit
When someone is new in a school, at work or in a neighborhood, the person or veteran who takes the rookie under her wing and shows the person around, gets respect and builds a feeling of loyalty in the mind of the rookie. Almost every person I know can relate stories about their first few days at work, in a new neighborhood or even in a new country. And in each one of those stories you can hear a vivid description of a person that helped our story-teller in those early and unfamiliar times.
When you encounter such a situation, as a leader it is the best time to make a solid impression on a new person.
Now there are other situations when it is not a good idea for the leader to step in and take things into her own hands. Some of those situations are as follows:
When you are not the expert
It is better to step aside and let the expert do her work; better still, order pizzas or bring baked cookies to the team when they are busy doing their thing.
When you can contribute in a different way
As one of my old bosses used to say, “You will certainly get help. It may not be what you want, but you will certainly be helped”.
If you can pull the right strings and empower a team member to accomplish her task smoothly, that is an option. Alternatively, if you can creatively devise another solution to the problem faced by the team, instead of chipping in and struggling along with the team, this will be noticed and appreciated by the team as well.
When your time is better spent in NOT doing that job
Many times I see very senior executives step in and perform tasks that are the duties of much junior personnel. This is NOT leading by example. Sure, you can do the job better and accomplish the task. But the opportunity cost of spending your time in doing that task is huge. For example, if a CFO spends an hour reviewing an IT procedure on financial security controls, it is not a good use of his time. Sure, the CFO can bring great insights, correct the procedure and provide creative suggestions as well. But the hour could have been better utilized by meeting with company investors or reviewing an important investment proposal for the company.
Other related readings online:
Brent Gleeson, a Navy Seal combat veteran lists 7 ways to lead by example in his post:
To give you the opposite side of the coin – someone who thinks leading by example is bad.
Another simple list of ten ways to lead by example is given in the following post: