What example do you want to set?

10 October, 2016

First, define what you stand for. Then, lead by example.

We are all familiar with Gandhiji’s quote, “you must be the change that you wish to see in the world”. The supposed story behind this quote is that a mother once visited Gandhi ji and requested him to tell her son to not eat too much sugar. Gandhiji asked the lady to return back after a couple of weeks. The lady wondered why Gandhiji asked her to come back later. Two weeks later, Gandhiji spoke to the boy. When asked why he told them to come back after a while, Gandhiji said that he himself was eating too much sugar. And so, he had to change himself before he could ask someone else to change.

This simple story illustrates that change has to begin with each of us. As leaders, we need to lead by example. Our actions should reflect our beliefs.

As a leader, you are constantly being watched as people take their cues from you. Even beyond your role at work, you are creating examples – as a parent, team member, friend or peer. People model their behaviour on yours, whether you want them to or not.

If anything, you’re probably responsible for exerting much more influence over other people than you even realise. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer put it, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing

So, given that the examples we set can have such a marked impact, my message this week is on how to lead by example more effectively – what example do you want to be setting? And how do you ensure that you walk the talk on it?

What example do you want to set?

Agreed, you know that you need to lead by example. But have you asked yourself what exactly this example is? It may surprise you that it isn’t as easy to answer as you had thought it would be. And that’s quite ironic. You can’t be leading by example and living up to it, if you don’t know exactly what you want that example to be. So, before you go any further, you need to clearly articulate this for yourself.

Kevin Eikenberry, in his article ‘What Leading By Example Really Means’, says that when asked this question most people “… talk in high level, vague language that is very difficult to turn into behaviours that can be emulated by others. The hit parade of attributes people say they want in team members includes: engaged and empowered, flexible and open to change, focused, good attitude and good work ethic. This is a good list, but what do these things really mean as we work each day?”

What does your example say about you?

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, ‘Like It or Not, You Are Always Leading by Example’, Michael Schrage points out that “lead-by-example content is both mirror and window into leadership sense-of-self”:

“In over 15 years of asking, no one has ever said they can’t, don’t, or won’t lead by example. To the contrary, executives always — always! — volunteer lead-by-example stories and vignettes they felt revealed something important about themselves. Their answers exposed their expectations (realistic and otherwise) about how their actions would be perceived by colleagues, clients, investors, etc. Charm and charisma are wonderful, but good examples can prove as persuasive as great presence.

Serious leaders understand that, both by design and default, they’re always leading by example. Some want to “lead from the front” while others prefer “leading from behind.” But everyone senses their success — and failure — at leading by example is integral to their “leadership brand.” Smart leaders want to build their brands. The lead-by-example stories executives tell sharpen their leadership brand propositions.”

The example you set stands in for who you are and who you want people around you to become.  You will be known by this, so think hard about what you are about to commit to. There’s a fine line here too. The purpose is not, as Eikenberry points out, to create “some sort of cadre of mini versions of yourself”. It is about role modelling behaviours and actions to influence others to do what is right for the organisation.

How do you lead by example?

What really matters is when the rubber hits the road. How do you bring your best self to work? How do you positively influence the behaviour of others through your actions?

Remember that leadership needs to be earned; people won’t just follow you because of your position – you have to earn the trust and respect of your team through your actions.  You have to give them tangible reasons to believe in you. Look at yourself – if you were a member on your team, would you be inspired by you?

Here are some ways that you could consider to set an example:

  • Live your values –Be clear about what you stand for and believe in. Commit wholeheartedly to living by it.
  • Put your organisation first – Act like an owner and put the interest of your organisation ahead of your self-interest. It will change the way you make decisions.
  • Beauthentic – To have people follow your example, you need to be open, self-aware and genuine. Be aware of your strengths and limitations.
  • 100/0 – Be 100% accountable with 0 excuses. The buck stops at you. So hold yourself accountable first before you look to other people.
  • Have courage – Stand up for what you believe in. Have the fortitude and conviction to push for things, even when it isn’t easy.
  • Be proactive and decisive – People need to see your willingness toroll up your sleeves and get working yourself. That’s how you will build credibility.
  • Be consistent – Don’t say one thing and do another. Inconsistency and hypocrisy don’t work. People will see through you.
  • Share and give credit; take blame – When you do this, it creates responsibility. Your team members also then feel more responsible. They will also own up to their mistakes and share credit with others. And while you are it, show your gratitude.
  • Be resilient – When times are tough, look out for your team and hold on to your principles. Bounce back after you get knocked down. This is the real test.
  • Make your presence felt – Build on the fact that you’re setting an example; radiate confidence in what you believe in and get people to take note of it. Like Mark Twain said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” 

What impact does your example have?

If you haven’t given this some thought, then start now. Find ways to measure the impact that your example has on other people – just like you would with any other goal that you set for yourself. Who is really following your example? For instance, if one of the things that you have decided to role model is to become more inclusive, then ask yourself what specific changes in your behaviour are you making to encourage more diversity? What are you doing for your team members to take this more seriously?  How are the changes showing? Are your team discussions encouraging different points of view? Do you champion company events around these themes? Are you hiring differently? When others talk about inclusiveness, are they using you as an example?

Not only will this offer you some great insights into the kind of change you could bring about, but it will also make you think harder about the example itself that you want to set. Do you need to come across stronger? Or should your message be more nuanced? Perhaps you need to be more direct? Are you being inconsistent in any way in your messaging across different platforms? As Schrage explains: “Serious leadership development doesn’t just ask leaders to know how they lead by example; it challenges them to be aware of what leadership examples inspire and influence them.”

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.



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