If You're Not Leading By Example, You're Not A Leader

“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” 

Andrew Carnegie, Scottish-born industrialist and philanthropist, 1835-1919


There’s hardly anything worse for company morale than leaders who practice the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. When this happens, you can almost see the loss of enthusiasm and goodwill among the staff. It’s like watching the air go out of a balloon … and cynicism and disappointment take its place.

You know what I’m talking about. There’s the executive who demands cost cutting in the organization … which often means laying off a couple of hundred people … and then gives himself a $10 million bonus. There’s the manager who tells everyone to stay late and then she leaves promptly at 5:00 p.m. so she won’t miss her kid’s baseball game. And there’s the supervisor who criticizes everyone for spending time on the Internet, but someone sees him ordering some golfing shoes online in the middle of the afternoon.

1. The cost of NOT leading by example

If leading by example is one of the best ways to motivate the best in others, then leading by words that are negated by your actions is one of the most certain ways to bring out the worst in others. After all, no matter what the situation is or how well you justify your double standards, when people witness you saying one thing and doing another, it ALWAYS feels like a betrayal.

There are emotional costs, to be certain. Everyone who sees you say one thing and do another feels angry and disappointed. And when negative emotions rise, productivity takes a dip.

But there are team costs as well. When a leader doesn’t practice what he preaches, it can be almost impossible for a team to work together successfully … because no one can trust a leader who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.

Consider what might have happened if Gandhi had, even one time, been in a physical fight with his opposition. His important message of nonviolent protest would probably have been much harder to believe after that. His followers would have looked at him with suspicion and distrust. The chances of them getting into physical arguments or committing acts of violence probably would have increased dramatically.

People do not follow egotistical braggarts with enthusiasm … at least not for very long. Why should they? When your walk and talk don’t line up, they treat everything you say with suspicion and doubt. They wonder if you’re doing the right thing or if you even know what the right thing is. They simply stop believing in you.

Therefore, it only makes sense to acknowledge …

2. The importance of leading by example

Good leaders push their people forward with excitement, inspiration, trust, and vision. That’s true. BUT, none of that will happen if you don’t lead by example … FIRST.

Indeed, it’s one of the key points made in my keynote and seminar on “The Leadership Payoff: How The Best Leaders Bring Out The Best In Yourself And Others.” (You can read about it at https://www.drzimmerman.com/programs/seminars/leadership-training.) Indeed, after delivering the program for Texas Instruments, Jeff Asmus, the Manager of Professional Development, wrote, “Alan, Thank you, thank you, thank you for your program with our Leadership Development Group. The positive feedback continues to come in day after day, saying such things as: ‘Best session yet … Really the right messages at the right time for Texas Instruments … It was a great day of us bonding and sharing with each other, I really think we are a team now … Very practical, and engaging … and … Overall, a great session.’ As the Manager, I have to say it was great fun to watch this group fully engage. I look forward to working with you and your organization in the future.”

Some of the best leadership advice I ever received was simple and straightforward. A leader may not always be able to predict what their followers will do, or say, or think. However, employees must always be able to predict what their leader will do, or say, or think … and they will be able to do that if the leader consistently leads by example. That way, his/her followers will be able to adapt and adjust their behavior to that of the leader. It’s simple but effective.

When I asked Daryl Flood, the CEO of Daryl Flood Relocation and Logistics about this, he answered, “What does it take to be a successful leader? After thinking about it for a few days, I wrote down the following thoughts. Consistently successful leaders follow best practices that garner loyalty and respect from their employees, while leading their organizations to new heights of success.” Sounded pretty profound to me.

So I asked Daryl to break it down further. He replied, “All of those best practices that garner loyalty and respect start with leading by example. In particular: caring about people, demonstrating integrity in everything, continuously learning, setting high expectations and standards, having the courage to make unpopular decisions, showing humility, and constantly communicating.”

When the Great Recession hit a few years ago, it became quite obvious which ones knew how to turn crises into opportunities. According to expert observer Jim Collins, the ones who would survive would be the ones who had “underlying ideals or principles that explained why it was important that they existed.”

Take Procter & Gamble, for example. One of the things that was very distinctive about P&G was their commitment to quality, even in the tough times. They said a customer will always be able to depend on the fact that a product is what we say it is. We will always build our reputation on quality. When they were under pressure to start cutting corners or use cheaper ingredients, they refused to do so. And they stayed alive and well while their competitors, who cut corners, who didn’t stick to their values, who didn’t deliver what they said they were going to deliver, floundered and failed.

So how can you do a better job of leading by example?

3. Behaviors of those who lead by example

Show them the way. Stop and think about the inspiring people who have changed the world with their examples. Consider what Mahatma Gandhi accomplished through his actions: He spent most of his adult life living what he preached to others. He was committed to nonviolent resistance to protest injustice, and people followed in his footsteps. He led them, and India, to independence … because his life proved, by example, that it could be done.

Keep your word. Look at legendary businessman, Jack Welch of General Electric. He wanted his team “turned loose,” and he promised to listen to ideas from anyone in the company. And he did. Everyone from the lowest line workers to senior managers got his attention … if they had something to say or a new idea that might make the company better. It wasn’t just “talk,” and it didn’t take his team long to figure that out. Welch listened and people in GE soon learned that Welch always kept his word.

Don’t ask for more than you’re willing to give. If you ask a coworker to do something, make sure you’d be willing to do it yourself.

Follow the same rules as everyone else. If you implement new rules for the office, then follow those rules just as closely as you expect everyone else to follow them. For example, if the new rule is “no personal calls at work,” then don’t talk to your spouse at work. You’ll be seen as dishonest your staff may become angry and start disobeying you.

Demonstrate effective listening. If you criticize people for interrupting, but you constantly do it yourself, you need to fix this. Yes, you want people to pay attention to one another and listen to all viewpoints, so you need to create that norm by demonstrating your own effective listing.

Walk your talk. If, in the spirit of goodwill, you make a rule for everyone to leave the office at 5:00 P.M. then you need to do it too. If you stay late to get more work done, your team may feel guilty and start staying late too, which can destroy the whole purpose of the rule. The same is true for something like a lunch break. If you want your team to take a full hour to rest and relax, then you need to do it too.

I absolutely believe that every leader … ones with a formal title and even the ones with informal leadership responsibilities … need leadership development training. Very few people are “natural born leaders.” Until you get that training, however, make sure you do at least one thing … lead by example.

 ACTION:  What are two areas in your life where your talk and your walk do not match? What changes do you need to make so you DO lead by example?