‘Lead by example. Good example leads.’
The three most important ways to lead people are: by example… by example… by example…
Today’s pioneers are tomorrow’s leaders; visionaries with a clear goal and the capacity to actually shape the future to their advantage. How do they do this? Through effective leadership. An effective leader is a leader who will do what they say and fulfil their promises. An effective leader motivates and inspires those around them. And above all, an effective leader sets a positive example for others. After all, a good example will inspire others to follow. But how can a leader ensure that they acquire and retain their followers? The key is to Lead by Example...
Learning leaders in a VUCA world
Our previous articles showed that the leadership of a Learning Leader can be broken down into four leadership principles. In our first article ‘In need of Learning Leaders’, we explained that besides being Reflective, Connected and Agile, a Learning Leader also needs to be Visionary. We said that an effective leader is someone who continuously adapts themselves to the changing world around them. In the article ‘No Vision, No Future’, we demonstrated the importance of having and upholding a clear vision. And in ‘Leaders with courage: now’s your chance!’, our article on opportunities, we said that a vision will remain hollow unless it is given substance. This series of articles illustrates that the five leadership principles are clearly interconnected: they are mutually reinforcing. The same applies to Leading by Example, which is closely connected with the principles mentioned above.
Company values & reliability
Leading by Example is about more than simply setting a good example. It means that a leader’s behaviour must also exhibit the values that they want the business to live up to. This applies both internally and externally. It’s about the company values – the values that the business stands for and that it aims to uphold. An effective leader puts down markers for their supporters, in order to lead the way. Their vision will undoubtedly be clear, but the crucial question is not where they ultimately want to take the organisation, or where growth opportunities can be found. Instead, Leading by Example is actually about how you, as a leader, want your organisation to act.
Leading by Example is always a natural offshoot of an organisation’s values. In fact, this leadership principle turns those values into something concrete. An effective leader lives and breathes the company values – these values shape everything that they do. These values also determine how strictly Leading by Example is applied. You will have a greater chance of actually influencing your organisation to embody its values if you set a good example yourself. Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA) was an example of this type of leader: he lived precisely in accordance with his own values, and therefore the company values, both in his professional life and his private life. Everything he did and said reflected IKEA’s values. Employees had no hesitation in following his exemplary behaviour because they had confidence that his ethos and actions were right.
Acting in accordance with values is important for any leader who wants to be credible to followers and potential followers. A leader who says one thing but does another will quickly squander their reliability and, with it, their followers too. People are generally keenly attuned to whether something feels out of place. When things don’t feel right, they notice. The same applies to a leader: people need to have a sense that a leader’s intentions are genuine. If people feel that those intentions don’t match the leader’s professed values, then that leader will tumble from their pedestal and be left with no credibility whatsoever.
To illustrate how a leader’s credibility can be tarnished, consider this example, which concerns compliance with safety policy at a major international manufacturing company. The company has very strict internal rules on safety. For instance, employees are not permitted to walk around the premises without helmets on and always have to hold onto railings when they climb stairs. In practice, board members did not follow these rules, because they considered them ‘unnecessary’. But when leaders ignore the rules, that emboldens employees to do the same. And you never know where that will end...
Leading by Example: 10 characteristics
The key to Leading by Example is, as we said earlier, company values. An effective leader always acts in accordance with these values and leads the organisation in the way required by these values. But how do you become an example to others? How do you Lead by Example in practice?
- Lead with honesty
Honesty matters more than anything else. An effective leader will regard honesty and reliability as paramount and their behaviour within the organisation will reflect this: everyone, at all levels of the business, must act honestly.
- Demonstrate integrity
As we said earlier, it’s crucial for a leader to be credible. If employees don’t believe in a leader, nothing will be achieved. So it’s important for them to see their leader fulfilling their obligations, even when it comes to day-to-day things like turning up on time for meetings. Integrity is fundamental.
- Live the company values
This is self-evident, since Leading by Example turns the company values into something concrete. A leader who fails to live up to the values that they preach is simply not a good leader.
- Always take responsibility
The easiest way for a leader to squander their credibility is to be afraid to admit to their own shortcomings. An effective leader needs the courage to make mistakes and to acknowledge those mistakes. Concede that you’ve messed something up. Admit that you’ve forgotten something. In other words, take responsibility for your own actions. If a leader does this, their employees will have the courage to do the same.
- Don’t be afraid to praise
Being the boss doesn’t prevent you from giving positive feedback. Everyone needs a compliment now and again, not just the company’s top performers. Showing appreciation for all employees is a sign of good leadership. It fosters motivation and loyalty in staff and encourages employees to respect one another.
- Create an inspirational culture
A leader who wants their followers to be inspired, motivated, enthusiastic and loyal must demonstrate these qualities too. This can be achieved through positive communication about results, new products, key sponsorships etc; if a leader expresses enthusiasm about things like this, their followers are more likely to follow suit.
- Roll up your sleeves
Be aware of what’s going on in the organisation. Go down to the shop floor and listen to staff. In other words, get to know your organisation. You can’t lead a company from an ivory tower. A leader needs to at least show an interest and know what they are talking about. Otherwise, people will catch you out right away. It’s also important to be an active part of the organisation. An effective leader isn’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty in order to help achieve the company’s goals.
To give an example of how this works in practice: a Dutch family-run logistics company was finding it harder and harder to recruit new drivers. And more and more of its drivers were leaving. To find out why this was happening and what was going on with the drivers, a female board member decided to become an ‘intern’ at the company. She rode alongside lorry drivers on 100 trips in order to establish direct contact with the operational staff and to focus attention on their problems. What were their concerns? What were they unhappy about? What did they want? And what were the possible solutions? This clear illustration of Leading by Example shows a manager demonstrating to employees that she took them and their situation very seriously.
- Watch what you say and do
Words can make and break people. So it’s important for a leader to know when to talk and when to remain silent. A leader needs to find the right words for the right situations. Not just externally, but also – and most of all – internally, in their contacts with employees.
Deeds are also important. A leader must fulfil their promises. Ensure that everyone in the organisation is facing in the same direction, working towards the same goal. Team spirit is often considered fundamental to what a company does: a team is not a tight-knit team unless all of its members feel appreciated. However, this needs to be right for your organisation. One illustration of the fact that it’s not always important to be a team player is given by the rheumatology team at Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC). This team is a global trailblazer and ahead of the field. It’s a team, but it’s made up of solo players. Applied to this team, Leading by Example means that each individual member is willing to drop everything when a patient needs treatment. None of the team members would hesitate for a moment if asked to carry out a complex operation in the middle of the night. As solo players, they set a good example. They are inspiring by actually doing things, by literally setting a good example.
- Articulate the mission
An effective leader needs to clearly state where they want to take the organisation. Their vision, mission and company values are fixed, decisive elements in their policy for achieving success. In order to ensure that employees promote and uphold these crucial elements, it’s important for them to have a clear idea of their role in achieving success. If they feel that their work is important in achieving certain goals, then they are more likely to go the extra mile to ensure that these goals are met.
- Be inclusive
A good leader shows their employees how to work together to achieve solutions. By encouraging active listening among employees, a good leader ensures that people actually understand what others mean. Finally, a good leader will give constructive criticism and ensure that employees feel a true connection with the actions and processes required to achieve the company’s goals, making them willing to work – and put in extra effort – to achieve them.
A good example will inspire others to follow. An effective leader Leads by Example. In all places and at all times. An effective leader motivates and inspires their followers through credible, exemplary behaviour that strictly matches the values that the leader wants to uphold. This consistency is crucial for successful leadership. Do you have to be the best leader right away? The answer is simple: no, you don’t. What matters is the effect that a leader can have on their followers. If a leader shows that they sincerely intend to make a positive difference for the company and/or for other people, this will quickly establish credibility.
This is the fifth article in a series of articles that the Leadership Academy Amsterdam will publish about the Leadership of the Future. If you are interested in the first four articles or if you would like a preview one of the articles to follow, please go to the Leadership Academy Amsterdam.